On December 1, 2018, Iranian authorities reportedly arrested Dr. Meimanat Hosseini Chavoshi, a research fellow and demography expert from the University of Melbourne’s School of Population and Global Health, and Mohammad Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi, a professor of demography at the University of Tehran, on espionage-related charges.
Dr. Chavoshi, reportedly a dual Iranian-Australian citizen, has worked on and written extensively about national population control efforts in Iran, which began in the 1990s and were long considered a success by Iranian authorities. Dr. Abbasi-Shavazi, who has also held an adjunct fellow position at the Australia National University, is known for his work on falling fertility rates in Iran in recent decades. Indeed, in 2010, a book that Drs. Chavoshi and Abbasi-Shavazi co-authored, titled “The Fertility Transition in Iran,” won the country’s Global Book of the Year award. In 2012, however, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, concluded that these efforts had been a mistake, effectively reversing the country’s population control policies and pushing for a massive population increase.
On December 1, a report by Kayhan newspaper, an outlet frequently aligned with the country’s security establishment, reported the arrests of several “infiltrators” who it alleged had manipulated population statistics, and, as part of a “cultural and social invasion,” had provided sensitive information to enemies of Iran. A government official alleged separately that Dr. Chavoshi and the other individuals who were arrested were members of “Western espionage networks.” On December 4, it was reported that Dr. Abbasi-Shavazi had also been arrested. As of this report, the other individuals reportedly arrested have not been identified; likewise, the evidentiary bases, if any, for the allegations against Dr. Chavoshi, Dr. Abbasi-Shavazi, and their colleagues, have not been made public.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arbitrary detention and prosecution of scholars in apparent retaliation for their non-violent exercise of the right to academic freedom and freedom of expression, conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party. State authorities have a responsibility to refrain from interfering with academic and expressive activity, so long as it is exercised peacefully and responsibly, and to comply with the internationally recognized standards of academic freedom, free expression and and due process. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, arbitrary imprisonment and prosecution undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.