SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: February 28, 2018

Attack Types: Loss of Position

Institution(s):Islamic Azad University

Region & Country:Southern Asia | Iran

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On February 28, 2018, Sadegh Zibakalam, a scholar of political science, reported that he had been dismissed without notice from his part-time position at Iran’s Islamic Azad University (IAU), in apparent retaliation for his political views

Professor Zibakalam, who also teaches at the University of Tehran, is a prominent academic and political analyst known for his debates with conservatives on national media outlets and his criticism of Iranian state policies. In 2014, he was convicted and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment (later reduced to a fine), on several charges including “weakening the regime” and “spreading propaganda against the state”, after publicly questioning Iran’s nuclear program.

According to reports, Professor Zibakalam learned he had been dismissed when he was not paid his January 2018 salary. IAU’s chancellor confirmed Professor Zikbalam’s dismissal on February 28 during a gathering of university staff. He reportedly explained that Professor Zibakalam’s receipt of salaries from two universities was illegal, and thus the basis for the dismissal. However, on the same day, the Chancellor reportedly stated, “Some professors go to a class and they say whatever nonsense they like, and when we question them, they shout and say that academic freedom is in danger. We will not tolerate any professor who would like to harm the religion, the Quran and the Prophet for one second.”

Professor Zibakalam is reportedly one of several pro-reform professors at IAU who have been laid off in recent months. 

Soon after his dismissal, on March 12, Professor Zibakalam was reportedly sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, in apparent retaliation for his remarks regarding the December 2017 protests in Iran during an interview with Deutsche Welle’s Persian Service. He was also banned for two years from giving public speeches, writing articles, giving interviews and being active in social media (see report).

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the dismissal of a scholar in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression – conduct which is expressly protected under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party. University officials have a responsibility to respect the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression and to refrain from retaliating against such conduct. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such actions undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society in general.