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: January 12, 2020

Attack Types: Killings, Violence, Disappearances

Institution(s):Various Institutions

Region & Country:Western Asia | Iraq

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On January 12, 2020, Iraqi state security personnel reportedly attacked and arrested students during a student-organized sit-in in front of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MHESR).

Protests against corruption, poor economic conditions, and a lack of public services have raged across Iraq since October 2019. Although demonstrations led to the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi in December, protests for further government action and reform continued into 2020. Protesters, predominantly Iraqi youth and many of them students, have been met with violence by Iraqi security forces and non-state actors, with hundreds reportedly killed.

Students engaging in sit-ins and strikes as part of the protest movement forced many universities across Iraq to temporarily close. On January 6, the MHESR issued a new academic calendar for universities across the country, ordering studies to resume on January 12. While some students opted to return to classes, others insisted on continuing protests.

On January 12 and 13, students held a sit-in in front of the MHESR headquarters to protest the decision to resume studies. During their protest, students erected tents outside the MHESR, carried coffins meant to commemorate fellow students who had died during the protests, and chanted slogans criticizing the ministry’s policies. Riot police reportedly fired tear gas at, beat, and arrested an unknown number of students over the course of the protest.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about state authorities’ use of force and arrests against students engaged in a nonviolent protest — conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iraq is a party. State authorities have a responsibility to refrain from restricting or retaliating against nonviolent expressive activity. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, the use of force and arrests against nonviolent student protesters undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.