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: September 26, 2023

Attack Types: Imprisonment

Institution(s):American University of Armenia

Region & Country:Western Asia | Armenia

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On September 26, 2023, Armenian “red berets” (special forces) detained eight American University of Armenia (AUA) students who were staging an on-campus protest in support of Artsakh Armenians.

According to media reports and an AUA statement, at the time of their detention, the students were peacefully standing on AUA’s main steps. Some held Armenian flags and posters related to Artsakh and Armenia. Around 40 members of the red berets roughly removed the eight students and took them away in police vans. Police reportedly gave the students paperwork stating that they had been detained for blocking the street and refusing to move after being asked by police—an accusation that was false, according to both the students and AUA. Police held the students for more than three hours before releasing them without charge. According to Armenian law, it is illegal for police to detain anyone for more than three hours without charge.

AUA released a statement expressing concern over the detentions: “The American University of Armenia is deeply troubled over the detention of the University’s students on its premises by the “red berets” [special police unit in Armenia]. The video records and testimonials from other students witnessing police activities, suggest that the detained students did not commit any violations of law, including administrative. They were simply standing on the University premises with Armenian flags and posters related to Artsakh and Armenia. We are concerned that such an act against students has the potential to harm the reputation of Armenia as a legal and democratic state.”

The detention of the eight students comes amid protests in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, criticizing the government’s handling of the conflict in the Nagorno Karabakh region. The territory is home to a predominantly Armenian population and has been partially controlled by the breakaway Republic of Artsakh, but is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. In September 2023, Azerbaijan launched a military offensive and rapidly gained control over the territory, leading the majority of ethnic Armenians to flee to Armenia.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arbitrary detention of university students for the nonviolent exercise of the right to freedom of expression and assembly – conduct that is protected by international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Armenia is a party. State and governing authorities have an obligation to refrain from taking actions to restrict or retaliate against such conduct, so long as it is nonviolent and responsible. In addition to harm to the immediate victim, arbitrary detention intended to restrict or otherwise deter the peaceful expressive activity of students undermines academic freedom and democratic society more generally.