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: May 10, 2020

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Prosecution | Loss of Position | Travel Restrictions

Institution(s):McGill University | Shahid Beheshti University

Region & Country:Southern Asia | Iran

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On May 10, 2020, Iranian authorities arrested Reza Eslami-Somea, a professor at Shahid Beheshti University (SBU), for organizing and facilitating a course on the rule of law. He was ultimately convicted of “cooperating with hostile foreign powers” and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment and a ban on travel outside the country and teaching.

Eslami, a dual Canadian-Iranian citizen, teaches human rights and environmental law. He obtained his his PhD at Canada’s McGill University. The author of more than a dozen books and articles on human rights law, Eslami was most recently a visiting fellow at McGill during the 2019-2020 academic year.

Agents of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence arrested Eslami at his office at SBU and confiscated his phone, computer, and several academic books. Authorities initially did not disclose Eslami’s whereabouts or the grounds for his arrest.

State authorities held Eslami in pre-trial detention until Branch 15 of the Islamic Revolutionary Court held its first hearing on October 20, 2020. Eslami was officially charged with “cooperating with an enemy state” for participating in a law training course in the Czech Republic. The course was reportedly sponsored by a US-based NGO. Before the trial’s start date, Mr. Eslami released an audio file denying any contact with an American organization or government agency and called the charges against him “false” and “baseless.”

In February 2021, it was reported that the court convicted and sentenced Eslami to seven years’ imprisonment. His sentencing also includes a ban on travel outside Iran and a ban on teaching.

According to the NGO Iran Human Rights, Eslami was put in the general ward of Evin Prison following his sentencing. It has not been reported whether he is appealing the conviction and sentence.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment of a scholar and the imposition of a ban on teaching and foreign travel in apparent retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the right to academic freedom — 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 Iran is a party. State authorities have a responsibility to abstain from restricting or retaliating against nonviolent academic work. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such actions undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.