Free to Think 2019

Posted November 19, 2019

Free to Think 2019 is the fifth installment of an annual report by SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, analyzing 324 attacks on higher education communities in 56 countries between September 1, 2018 and August 31, 2019.

“Attacks on higher education communities — regardless of their location, scale, or scope — hold consequences for societies everywhere,” says SAR’s Executive Director, Robert Quinn. “In our increasingly interconnected world, these attacks erode an essential, global space where academics, students, and the public at large can come together to understand and solve the complex problems that are affecting us all.”

Free to Think 2019 draws on data from SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project to identify trends related to violent attacks on higher education communities, including a series of deadly bombings targeting scholars and students in Afghanistan; wrongful imprisonments and prosecutions of scholars, particularly in Turkey and Sudan; pressures on student expression involving more than one hundred documented incidents around the world; and restrictions on academic travel, deployed most prominently by authorities in the U.S., Israel, and China. The report provides detailed analysis of national pressures on higher education communities, including:

  • Political tensions in India that have led to violent altercations between students, security forces, and off-campus groups, and have driven legal actions and disciplinary measures against scholars critical of those in power;
  • Ongoing attacks on scholars in Turkey, who continued to face arrest, prosecution, and bans on public employment and foreign travel for signing a peace petition or for being associated with groups or individuals disfavored by the government;
  • Violent crackdowns on dissent in Sudan, where state authorities shuttered universities and security services used arrests and even lethal violence to quell dissent among students and scholars amid nationwide protests;
  • Heightened assaults on academic freedom in China, where scholars and students are punished for being out of step with CCP ideology and where so-called “re-education camps” are being used to imprison minority scholars and students; and
  • A surge in politically-motivated pressures on Brazil’s universities, including raids on campuses, threats against and attacks on minority students, and legislation that threatens universities’ activities and core values.

“Since 2011, SAR has reported over fourteen hundred attacks on higher education in over one hundred countries. These attacks challenge everybody’s freedom to raise difficult questions and share ideas,” says Clare Robinson, SAR’s Advocacy Director. “Free to Think demands urgent action from governments, higher education leaders, and civil society to actively protect higher education communities and defend academic freedom.”

The report provides steps diverse stakeholders—states; higher education institutions, associations, and societies; faculty, staff, and students; media; and the public—can take to promote and protect academic freedom. These include calls for more states to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration; higher education institutions offering temporary positions of academic refuge for endangered scholars; and faculty and students participating in SAR Academic Freedom Legal Clinics and Student Advocacy Seminars.

JOIN SAR: Higher education institutions are invited to inquire about SAR’s work and about joining the SAR network by visiting or emailing

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Table of Contents

Executive Summary
Call to Action
Violent Attacks on Higher Education Communities
Wrongful Imprisonment and Prosecution of Scholars
Tensions Within India’s Higher Education Space
Ongoing Attacks on Turkey’s Academics
Global Pressures on Student Expression
Sudan’s Crackdown on Students and Scholars
Threats to Academic Freedom in China
Travel Restrictions on Scholars and Students
Assault on Brazil’s Higher Education Space
Appendix: Table of Incidents
Appendix: Methodology

Executive Summary

Around the world, attacks on scholars, students, staff, and their institutions occur with alarming frequency. These attacks are carried out by a range of state and non-state actors, including armed militant and extremist groups, police and military forces, government authorities, off-campus groups, and even members of higher education communities, among others. They harm the individuals and institutions directly targeted. They undermine entire higher education systems by impairing the quality of teaching, research, and discourse on campus. They shrink everyone’s space to think, question, and share ideas freely and safely, impairing public discourse and damaging social, political, cultural, and economic development.

Through its Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, Scholars at Risk (SAR) responds to these attacks by identifying and tracking key incidents, with the aim of protecting vulnerable individuals, raising awareness, encouraging accountability, and promoting dialogue and understanding that can help prevent future threats. Free to Think 2019, the fifth in a series of annual reports analyzing attacks on higher education communities around the world, analyzes 324 reported attacks in 56 countries that occurred between September 1, 2018, and August 31, 2019.

The monitoring project collects data on defined types of attacks on higher education. These include killings, violence, and disappearances; wrongful prosecution and imprisonment; loss of position and expulsion from study; improper travel restrictions; and other severe or systemic issues (including, for example, university closures or military occupation of campuses). While they differ across states and regions and by severity and type, these attacks all share a common motivation: to control or silence higher education institutions and personnel.

This report focuses on key developments and trends over the latest reporting year. Armed groups and individuals continue to carry out severe, violent attacks on higher education communities. These include attacks in countries experiencing extremism or conflict, where higher education communities may be targeted as perceived symbols of state authority or sources of opposition to radical ideologies. They also include attacks targeting individual scholars or students, intended to retaliate against or deter academic activity and expression. Over the past year, SAR reported on violent attacks on higher education communities in Afghanistan, Ecuador, Sudan, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and Yemen, and targeted attacks on individual scholars and students in Brazil, India, and Pakistan.

State authorities around the world used detentions, prosecutions, and other coercive legal measures to punish and restrict hundreds of scholars’ and students’ research, teaching, and extramural expression and associations. These actions are frequently carried out under laws or on grounds ostensibly related to national security, terrorism, sedition, and defamation. Higher education administrations similarly used their own disciplinary methods, including suspensions and dismissals, to retaliate against and silence critical expression by academic personnel and students.

Governments restrict or otherwise frustrate academics’ and students’ right to freedom of movement, a requisite component of today’s globally connected academic community. Through targeted actions against specific individuals—including the use of visa denials, exit bans, and deportations—and broad restrictions affecting many traveling to or from Turkey, Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, China, and the United States, state authorities have disrupted the free-flow of ideas that is central to quality higher education and to building global understanding and cooperation.

Violent and coercive attacks on student expression are one of the most frequently occurring subsets of incidents reported by the monitoring project. This year, hundreds of students were killed, injured, arrested, or subjected to other coercive force by state and non-state perpetrators in connection with their expressive activity. Such attacks threaten the future of strong, nonviolent student movements, which are important to understanding contemporary issues and to the development of future leaders. Attacks on students and nonviolent student movements are often initiated by state authorities and non-state actors outside of higher education, although in some cases subsets of students engage in violent acts, including clashes with opposing student groups and state and private security forces and the destruction of university property.

In several countries, SAR reported elevated levels of attacks on higher education communities. In India, political tensions have led to violent altercations between students, security forces, and off-campus groups, and have driven coercive legal actions and disciplinary measures targeting students and academics whose ideas do not align with the ideas of those in power.

In China, state and university officials have increased pressures on members of the higher education community considered out of step with the Chinese Communist Party’s ideology through arrests, travel restrictions, and dismissals. Meanwhile authorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region continue the mass imprisonment of students, academics, and other members of ethnic minority communities at so-called “re-education camps.”

For the fourth consecutive year, SAR has reported extraordinary attacks on Turkey’s higher education sector. State authorities have used prosecutions, arrests, and bans on public employment and foreign travel, among other actions, against thousands of academics who were accused of disloyalty, treason, or terrorism for signing a petition critical of state actions or being associated with individuals or groups disfavored by the government.

In Sudan, where nationwide protests decrying economic conditions and calling for a change in leadership gripped the country, the government shuttered universities while security forces used arrests and violent, often lethal force to quell dissent by students and academics, along with members of other professional groups.

And in Brazil, pressures on university communities shot up around the country’s presidential elections in October 2018. Police raids on campuses, reports of minority students and scholars being threatened and attacked on and off-campus, and politically-motivated budgetary and legislative actions by the state to undercut higher education institutions and limit academic freedom and institutional autonomy mirror concerning developments found in other nations where the concept of “illiberal democracy” has gained traction among leaders.

Free to Think 2019 reflects only a small sample of attacks on higher education that occurred over the past year. Nevertheless, it suggests a distressing, global phenomenon of attacks requiring a robust, global response from all who value academic freedom and quality higher education.

Scholars at Risk calls on states, higher education communities, and civil society around the world to respond: to reject violence and coercion aimed at restricting inquiry and expression; to protect threatened scholars, students, and higher education institutions; and to reaffirm publicly their commitment to academic freedom and support for the principles that critical discourse is not disloyalty, that ideas are not crimes, and that everyone must be free to think, question, and share their ideas.

(Table of Contents)

Call to Action

Scholars at Risk’s (SAR) reporting demonstrates that attacks on higher education communities occur at an alarming rate. From January 2011 through August 2019, SAR documented more than fourteen hundred attacks in one hundred countries, ranging from bombings of campuses to targeted threats against professors and students to administrative and legislative efforts to shut down higher education institutions. The impact of these attacks extends far beyond the tens of thousands of academics, students, staff, and administrators directly targeted for their ideas and questions. These attacks chill academic freedom across entire university communities and limit everyone’s freedom to think and ask questions.

Beyond documenting and raising awareness of these attacks, Free to Think serves as a call to action for governments, higher education communities, and civil society, all of whom can play an important role in protecting higher education communities and promoting academic freedom.

SAR invites readers to consider the following opportunities for action and to propose their own novel approaches.[1]


States can recognize the problem of attacks on higher education by acknowledging it in public statements. They can signal the importance of safe university campuses by endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration, through which states express political support for and commit to implementing the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, and encouraging peers to do the same.[2] Raising awareness about this endorsement helps ensure the issue remains on the public agenda. States can also implement the Principles of State Responsibility to Protect Higher Education from Attack, through which states commit to protecting higher education from present and future attacks, and publicize their efforts to do so.[3]

States can further express concern about attacks on higher education communities, publicly or privately, through inquiries posed to other states regarding national conditions for academic freedom and higher education. The United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review, a process that involves a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States, provides an opportunity for states to comment on or inquire into other states’ efforts to protect higher education communities.

Through intergovernmental and supranational bodies, states can introduce measures in support of academic freedom and the university space. In November 2018, for example, European Parliament adopted a recommendation to make academic freedom a human rights consideration in the European Union’s foreign policy.[4]

States can introduce measures to protect higher education nationally as well, while ensuring that any such measures are consistent with core principles of higher education including academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and social responsibility. These and other efforts help to ensure accountability and make academic freedom a norm within and among states.

Where possible, states can also provide funding opportunities to support higher education institutions and NGOs seeking to help scholars and students under attack. In Germany, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (AvH), for example, has partnered with the Federal Foreign Office and a number of philanthropic organizations to fund two-year fellowships for at-risk scholars through the Philipp Schwartz Initiative (PSI).[5] In France, through the PAUSE program (National Program for the Urgent Aid and Reception of Scientists in Exile), the Ministry for Education and Research, Collège de France, and the Chancellery of Parisian Universities provide support to higher education establishments and public research organizations that host scientists at risk.[6] In Norway, following the efforts of the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund and the National Union of Students in Norway, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs funded the Students-at-Risk (StAR) program which enables at-risk students to pursue degrees in Norway. Such efforts help to ensure that scholars and students can continue their work in safety, all the while contributing to their host communities.

Higher Education Institutions

Higher education institutions are encouraged to join the Scholars at Risk Network, to demonstrate solidarity for colleagues worldwide who suffer direct attacks, and to contribute to efforts to address the causes of and the fallout from attacks.

Institutions can demonstrate support for scholars impacted by attacks by offering temporary positions of academic refuge to these individuals through SAR, the Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara), the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund, PAUSE, the Philipp Schwartz Initiative, and others. They can identify internal funding or seek governmental or philanthropic funds to create fellowships for scholars and students.

Leaders of higher education institutions can voice concerns regarding attacks on the sector. Groups of higher education institutions and associations that are nationally or regionally organized, such as through SAR sections,[7] can come together to voice concerns regarding attacks on the sector and to explore solutions that may serve as a model for other regions. To heighten awareness about this issue, higher education leaders can speak about academic freedom and attacks on higher education at events on their campuses and to the public. They can raise the problem of attacks in meetings with peers, partners, government ministries, and academic associations. They can encourage research into and teaching of academic freedom, and can encourage conferences to explore the topic.

Higher Education Associations and Societies

Higher education associations and societies can also contribute to efforts to assist threatened higher education communities. Associations and societies can encourage research into academic freedom and into the root causes of attacks on higher education. They can include the issue on the agendas of regional and annual meetings. They can also form committees specifically to address these attacks or they can task an existing committee with exploring the issue in the context of the association’s scope and membership.

For example, the International Society of Political Psychology (ISPP) offers free memberships to scholars negatively impacted by events in Turkey, enabling them to maintain an academic affiliation and access to academic journals.[8] The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) convenes a Science and Human Rights Coalition, a network of scientific and engineering membership organizations that recognizes a role for scientists and engineers in human rights, to facilitate the exchange of best practices in supporting threatened scientists, among other activities.[9]

Faculty, Staff, and Students

Faculty, staff, and students can learn more about academic freedom by enrolling in the free online course, “Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters?,” which explores the meaning of academic freedom and how it relates to core higher education and societal values,[10] and exploring SAR’s workshop curriculum and the Promoting Higher Education Values guidebook.[11]

Faculty and staff at higher education institutions can contribute directly to Free to Think by sharing with SAR reports of attacks on higher education communities and by offering to review Free to Think prior to publication. Those with regional expertise can advise SAR on the regional or national context around incidents identified through SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project.[12]

Faculty can lead an Academic Freedom Legal Clinic, through which law students engage with practical and theoretical issues relating to academic freedom, responses to attacks on higher education, and related human rights issues. They can also lead a Student Advocacy Seminar, a course through which students conduct research and advocacy in support of a wrongfully imprisoned scholar or student. By engaging in these experiential activities, faculty can train the next generation of human rights and higher education defenders through hands-on research and advocacy work.[13]

Student groups and academic departments can invite threatened scholars to speak on campus through the Vivian G. Prins / Scholars at Risk Speaker Series, a speakers’ bureau that provides higher education institutions the opportunity to learn from current and formerly at-risk scholars. Events like these give the broader campus community insights into attacks on higher education and the work of these courageous scholars.[14]

Students, staff, and faculty can support imprisoned academics and students through SAR’s Scholars in Prison project, through which SAR conducts advocacy on behalf of individual scholars and students who are wrongfully imprisoned in connection to their academic or expressive activities. Faculty, students, and staff can take action by signing and sharing letters of appeal and organizing their own campus-wide or nation-wide campaigns to raise awareness within the student body about attacks on higher education, as the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH) did through its Norway-wide campaigns in 2011 and 2017.[15]


The media has a central role in raising awareness about the phenomenon of attacks on the higher education sector through investigations, articles, interviews, public reporting, and events. In addition to documenting attacks, this includes explaining the causes and impacts of such attacks beyond their direct victims, including impacts on cross-border education and research, and on the economic, political, and security conditions in the countries and territories in which attacks occur. Press and artistic freedom advocates can partner with SAR and other academic freedom advocates to seek greater protections for the intellectual, creative, and expressive freedoms these groups need to thrive.

Civil Society and the Public

Attacks on higher education shrink the space for everyone to think, question, and share ideas. Civil society and the public can learn more about these issues by enrolling in “Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters?,” a free online course.[16]

They can attend SAR’s Global Congress, a biennial conference that convenes the higher education community, partners, and stakeholders in conversations around these important issues.[17]

They can also play a key awareness-raising role over social media by using the hashtags #AcademicFreedom and #Free2Think in their posts, following @ScholarsAtRisk on Twitter and Facebook, and re-posting SAR’s social media posts.


Free to Think documents the alarming rate of attacks on the higher education sector and serves as a call to action. SAR invites everyone to take up this call, and to join us in protecting those at risk, promoting academic freedom, and defending everyone’s freedom to think, question, and share ideas.

[1]               Please contact to learn more about the activities noted here as well as other initiatives, and to propose new ideas for actions and partnerships.
[2]               See
[3]               See and
[4]               See
[5]               More information regarding AvH and PSI can be found at
[6]               More information regarding PAUSE can be found at
[7]               See
[8]               More information regarding ISPP and its efforts to support threatened scholars can be found at
[9]               More information regarding AAAS and the Science and Human Rights Coalition can be found at
[10]             The online course was created by SAR and the University of Oslo as part of an Erasmus+ -funded “Academic Refuge” project. Learn more about the course at
[11]             See
[12]             See
[13]             Learn more about the Legal Clinic program at, and the Student Advocacy Seminar program at
[14]             Invite one of these scholars to speak on your campus today:
[15]             More information regarding SAIH and its campaigns can be found at:,, and
[16]             See
[17]             Learn more about and register for SAR’s 2020 Global Congress, scheduled to take place in Washington, DC, and Baltimore, MD, from March 25-28, 2020, here:
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Violent Attacks on Higher Education Communities

Violent attacks on scholars, students, and their institutions are among the gravest threats to higher education. These attacks not only result in the loss of lives and injuries impacting hundreds if not thousands of immediate victims, but also severely compromise the university space more generally, by sending a message that certain ideas are off limits, and anyone who expresses them risks physical harm—even death.

During the past year, SAR reported ninety-seven violent incidents in forty countries. At least thirty-two students, scholars, staff, campus security personnel, and others died as a result of these attacks, with many more injured.

Attacks on Universities

In Yemen, the United Kingdom, Afghanistan, Sudan, Thailand, and Ecuador, non-state actors and groups carried out violent, premeditated attacks on higher education institutions. These attacks, which included the use of explosive devices, resulted in at least sixteen deaths and more than sixty injured.

In Yemen, on October 6, 2018, members of the Houthi militia attacked and arrested fifty-five students near the campus of the University of Sana’a for taking part in a demonstration demanding a response to poverty and diminishing living standards (AFMI 751). The militia, who controlled Sana’a at the time of the incident, subjected students to violence, including beatings and electric shocks, before releasing them on the condition that they refrain from future protests. Later that day, the Houthis reportedly shut down the University of Sana’a, citing “security measures,” and deployed tanks and other armed vehicles around campus buildings.

In the United Kingdom, on March 6, 2019, a bomb was mailed to the University of Glasgow (UoG) for apparent political reasons. University officials, alerted to the presence of a suspicious package in the university’s mail room, evacuated a number of campus buildings and contacted local police, who carried out a controlled detonation of the parcel (AFMI 859). Similar packages were sent to three London transportation hubs the previous day. A media outlet later reported receiving a statement from a group calling itself the Irish Republican Army (IRA), claiming responsibility for sending the packages to London and UoG, and stating it targeted UoG for hosting recruitment staff for the British army. Sources indicate that the group that sent the statement is more commonly referred to as the “New IRA,” a derivative of the disbanded Provisional IRA which sought the withdrawal of the British government from Northern Ireland. As of this report, no arrests have been made in connection to the incident.

In Afghanistan, at least three major attacks on campus communities were reported this year. On April 25, a suspected militant attempted to plant a bomb at Jahan University in Kabul (AFMI 907). The device reportedly detonated prematurely, killing the assailant and injuring three students who were hit with shards of glass following the explosion. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack as of this report. On June 2, alleged members of the Islamic State carried out a targeted bombing of a bus carrying university students in Kabul, leaving two dead and at least twenty-four injured (AFMI 929). Unidentified individuals detonated an improvised explosive device magnetically attached to a bus carrying students to the Kabul Education University of Rabbani. While authorities were attending to victims of the initial explosion, two more bombs planted nearby detonated. And just over two weeks later, on July 19, a bombing was carried out at Kabul University, killing at least eight people and injuring another thirty-three (AFMI 951). Exams and other summer academic activities were being conducted at the time of the bombing. No group has claimed responsibility as of this report.

In Sudan, on June 9, paramilitary forces carried out an apparently retaliatory attack on students and faculty at the University of Khartoum (UofK), killing four protesters, vandalizing faculty offices, and burning a university hospital (AFMI 934). The attack occurred after UofK staff had reportedly launched a civil disobedience movement in response to the killing of over one hundred peaceful pro-democracy protesters by paramilitary forces on June 3.

In Thailand, on August 4, suspected militants detonated a bomb near the entrance of Fatoni University, a private Islamic university in Pattani province, causing damage to campus property (AFMI 957). The assailants tied up a security guard stationed at the university’s entrance and detonated an explosive device they had rigged to an ATM. No injuries were reported. Within two hours, two similar attacks were carried out at Islamic schools in Pattani province.

And in Ecuador, on the evening of August 22, assailants set off a bomb at the University of Guayaquil (AFMI 961). The explosive device was reportedly detonated in the rear of the rector’s building, resulting in damage to university infrastructure but no injuries. Sources indicate that this was the sixth explosion to occur at the University of Guayaquil in seven months. On September 18, authorities arrested six individuals suspected of carrying out the attacks.

Targeted Attacks on Scholars and Students

Individual scholars and students in several countries have also been the targets of violent, often sectarian attacks.

In India, on September 13, 2018, a group of fifteen unidentified individuals attacked Shakti Babu, a student at Mahatma Gandhi Central University (MGCU), for comments he made about the university’s vice-chancellor on social media (AFMI 734). Babu was hospitalized and treated for injuries sustained in the attack. Sources indicate that Babu first began receiving threatening phone calls in August 2018 after posting a video of a protest march he had attended along with comments critical of the university’s vice-chancellor. The march was organized in support of MGCU professor Sanjay Kumar who had been the victim of a violent attack.

In Brazil, on October 25, a black female student at the University of Fortaleza (UNIFOR) was raped after having received numerous racist threats both online and in person (AFMI 765). As of this report, the perpetrator has not been identified. The attack occurred against the backdrop of a pattern of politically-motivated attacks on racial minorities and members of the LGBTQ community perpetrated by supporters of then-presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in the lead-up to Brazil’s 2018 elections. Prior to the October 25 incident, the student had been harassed and threatened with rape outside the campus by a man claiming that he and others would “cleanse the university” of “her people” once Bolsonaro took office. UNIFOR condemned the attack and offered the victim psychological and legal counseling.

In Pakistan, on March 20, a student killed Khalid Hameed, a professor of English at the Government Sadiq Egerton College (GSEC), in retaliation for the professor’s role in organizing a mixed-gender welcome event for new students (AFMI 874). Prior to the event, Khateeb Hussein, a student at GSEC, had urged Hameed to cancel the event as he viewed the mingling of male and female students to be “against the teachings of Islam.” This led to a heated disagreement, after which Hussein entered Hameed’s office and proceeded to stab the professor in the head and stomach. Hameed died of his injuries at a local hospital. Hussein was arrested shortly thereafter and charged with murder.

In Saudi Arabia, on April 23, authorities executed Mujtaba al-Sweikat, a Saudi citizen, for participating in Arab Spring-related protests (AFMI 902). Al-Sweikat was initially arrested in August 2012 at an airport in Dammam as he was preparing to travel to begin undergraduate studies at Western Michigan University in the United States. Following his arrest, he was tortured and forced to confess to various national security-related crimes for which he was convicted in 2015 and sentenced to death in 2016.

In Serbia, on June 7, a group of unidentified men attacked students Marko Đelević and Mihajlo Nikolić after they returned to the University of Novi Sad’s campus following their participation in a protest against plans to raze a small park next to two apartment complexes (AFMI 932). Đelević and Nikolić, both activists associated with a local organization fighting evictions and “investment urbanism,” reported that the men followed them back to campus and later beat them with metal bars as they exited a campus building. One day later, on June 8, unidentified individuals beat another University of Novi Sad student, Dejan Bagaric, after he returned to campus following his participation in a pro-democracy protest he helped organize (AFMI 933). Police in Novi Sad launched investigations into both attacks, and reportedly arrested one suspect.

And in Afghanistan, on August 27, Nangarhar University professor Massoud Nekbakht was killed and three colleagues were injured in a targeted attack on their vehicle (AFMI 966). Reports indicate that an explosive device rigged to their vehicle detonated while they were traveling in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province, where there is a heavy presence of both Islamic State and Taliban forces. Nekbakht was the dean of the language and literature faculty at Nangarhar University and the nephew of Mawlawi Khalis, a prominent political leader from the region who died in 2006. Nekbakht reportedly was not involved in politics. No group has publicly claimed responsibility for the attack as of this report.

Lethal Violence Against Student Protesters

The use of violent and especially lethal force by state and private security forces against university student protesters is of particular concern. While these incidents are discussed in detail later in this report, it bears mentioning here that six incidents during this reporting period resulted in eight student fatalities.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), police used lethal force in response to at least three student protests, resulting in the death of five students. On November 12, 2018, police deployed lethal force against peaceful protesters at the University of Kinshasa, killing one student (AFMI 777). Police fired live ammunition at students protesting a faculty strike, striking graduate student Hyacinthe Kimbafu, who died of his wounds nine days later. Three days after the protest, on November 15, police again fired live ammunition at students protesting the shooting of Kimbafu at the University of Kinshasa, killing undergraduate student Rodrigue Eliwo (AFMI 780). Two months later, on January 27, 2019, police fired live ammunition and tear gas at student protesters from the University of Lubumbashi, leaving three students dead (AFMI 828). Police used violent force against the students as they were returning to campus from the local governor’s residence, where they had been protesting gas and electricity shut-offs that had impacted their studies.

In South Africa, on February 5, private security personnel killed Mlungisi Madonsela, a business student at Durban University of Technology (DUT), during a protest over financial assistance for students (AFMI 832). The students’ protests began on February 4, with students engaging in violent conduct, including the destruction of property. On February 5, a group of student protesters attempted to storm a university building, throwing rocks and bricks, and sparked an altercation after a private security guard was injured. At least one of the guards opened fire with live rounds, striking Madonsela. Following the incident, DUT officials suspended classes and launched an investigation into the conduct of the private security guards.

While state and university authorities have an obligation to ensure safety and maintain order on and off-campus, they must ensure that their response is proportional to the situation and respects the life and well-being of participants and bystanders alike. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, lethal force used in response to student expression undermines academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.


SAR condemns targeted, violent attacks on higher education communities and the use of lethal force against student protesters, and calls on state authorities to investigate these incidents, to make every effort to hold perpetrators accountable, and to ensure the security of all members of the community.

SAR also calls on higher education institutions and civil society to press state authorities for greater protection and accountability, and to contribute to efforts to understand and reinforce principles of autonomy and academic freedom.

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Wrongful Imprisonment and Prosecution of Scholars

Scholars and students challenge dominant discourse and systems of power through their academic work and expressive activities on and off campus. State authorities retaliate against or restrict scholars’ and students’ academic work, inquiry, expression, and associations through prosecutions and imprisonments, in an effort to maintain their control. Often, state authorities carry out these actions under laws or on grounds related to national security, terrorism, espionage, and sedition.

As a result, scholars and students are silenced, and frequently subjected to inhumane prison conditions and judicial mistreatment. Not only do scholars’ and students’ careers and personal well-being suffer, but higher education communities and society lose important voices that drive progress. Through wrongful imprisonments and prosecutions, authorities send a chilling message to higher education communities and beyond: that crossing certain lines can come at a price.

During this reporting period, hundreds of scholars and students were prosecuted, detained, arrested, or imprisoned in connection with their academic activities, expression, or associations.[18] These notably include Turkey’s “Academics for Peace,” and scholars and students in Sudan who joined a nationwide protest movement.

Academic Content and Conduct

Scholars and students frequently face detention, arrest, prosecution, and other legal action for their academic work and expression, including their lectures, research, and publications.

In South Korea, in September 2018, a court convicted and sentenced a former Sunchon National University (SNU) professor to six months imprisonment for allegedly insulting so-called “comfort women” from the Korean peninsula, China, and other regions, who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II (AFMI 736). The topic of comfort women is a deeply sensitive issue in Korea, with state authorities and members of the public at times resorting to coercive legal actions to control the narrative. In this case, court documents reportedly accused the SNU professor of suggesting in an April 2017 lecture that some comfort women voluntarily joined “the system.” After the professor’s alleged comments were widely circulated on social media, the university fired him. A civil society group later brought a defamation complaint against the professor and, in September 2018, a court convicted and sentenced the professor to six months in prison on a charge of defamation. The professor appealed and told the Gwangju District Court that “considering the overall context of the class, I did not intend to say that the victims voluntarily participated in sexual slavery.” By November, the court upheld the conviction and sentencing. In a similar case in 2017, a court overturned the acquittal of a Sejong University professor who had appealed a defamation conviction for a book she published that included some discussion of comfort women within the framework of sex work.[19]

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, on October 7, 2018, authorities arrested Catholic University of Graben political scientist Nissé Nzereka Mughendi in retaliation for his research and comments regarding the government’s response to a mass killing (AFMI 752). His arrest came one day after speaking at a public conference on the four-year anniversary of mass killings carried out by armed groups in the city of Beni. Mughendi made comments during the conference that were critical of the government’s defense strategy in relation to the killings. Mughendi reportedly had planned to interview survivors of the mass killings around the time of the conference. On October 7, authorities summoned Mughendi and arrested him for conducting the interviews without government permission and for belonging to a “criminal association”; the latter accusation was based on allegations that he collaborated with an Islamist armed group, the Allied Democratic Forces. After four days of local and international advocacy efforts, the court granted Mughendi a provisional release. Charges against Mughendi have since been dropped.

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), on October 10, Matthew Hedges, a British PhD candidate from Durham University, in the UK, attended his first court hearing since his arrest on May 5, 2018.[20] Hedges traveled to the UAE in April of that year to conduct research for his dissertation on Emirati foreign and security policies. Hedges was apparently reported to authorities for allegedly “asking sensitive questions about some sensitive departments” and trying to obtain “classified information on the UAE.” Following his arrest, Hedges was held incommunicado for several weeks and subjected to mistreatment, including daily interrogations, threats, and forced drugging. On November 21, an Emirati court convicted and sentenced Hedges to life in prison on charges of “spying” and providing “intelligence information to third parties.” The allegations apparently stem from a forced confession, in which Hedges signed a document stating he was a member of the British foreign intelligence service MI6. On November 26, following pressure from UK officials and widespread international condemnation, Emirati authorities pardoned and released Hedges.

In Iran, authorities arrested at least four academics in connection with their work. On December 1, authorities arrested demography scholars Meimanat Hosseini Chavoshi, from Australia’s University of Melbourne, and Dr. Mohammad Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi, of the University of Tehran, apparently for an award-winning book they co-authored in 2009 titled The Fertility Transition in Iran (AFMI 793). The scholars’ book examines Iran’s declining fertility rate alongside various socio-economic factors. Within years of the book’s publication, the government called for efforts to increase the country’s fertility rate. Authorities charged the scholars with espionage-related offenses, alleging that Chavoshi and Abbasi-Shavazi created false statistics and provided sensitive information to Iran’s foreign adversaries. In January 2019, a court ordered the release of Chavoshi on bail; however, it is unclear whether she is free to leave the country. There is no public information regarding Abbasi-Shavazi’s status as of this report.

In early June 2019, Iranian authorities arrested anthropologist Fariba Adelkhah and sociologist Roland Marchal, both researchers at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (“Sciences Po”) (AFMI 927). Adelkhah, a renowned scholar of post-revolutionary Iran and a dual French-Iranian citizen, had been traveling in the region for several months, conducting research on seminaries in the Iranian city of Qom. Marchal reportedly traveled to Iran to visit his colleague Adelkhah. When Adelkhah and Marchal failed to return to France on June 24, colleagues alerted French authorities. On July 16, Iranian authorities confirmed Adelkhah’s arrest. Marchal’s arrest was not made public until October. As of this report, Iranian authorities have not publicly disclosed the basis for their arrest and it is unclear what charges they face.

And, on August 11, Iranian authorities detained Kameel Ahmady, a dual Iranian-British citizen and anthropologist in apparent retaliation for his scholarly work (AFMI 958). Ahmady has published books and articles on gender issues, including female genital mutilation and child marriage in Iran. On August 13, authorities reportedly informed Ahmady’s wife that they issued a one-month detention order for her husband on “security grounds.” As of this report, Iranian officials have not publicly disclosed the basis of Ahmady’s arrest.

Finally, in China, in early April 2019, authorities detained Northwest Minzu University graduate student Sonam Lhundrub in apparent retaliation for an essay he wrote for his civil service exam (AFMI 887). Sonam’s essay describes the decline in government career opportunities for Tibetans in Tibetan regions of China. Shortly after his essay was widely circulated on social media, Tibetan education officials detained Sonam while he was in class. As of this report, there have been no public updates on his whereabouts or status.

Activism and Dissent

State authorities have used similar tactics against scholars and students for their activism, public dissent, or associations.

In Nicaragua, authorities imprisoned at least 802 people, including many scholars and students, for their participation in a nationwide protest movement that began in April 2018.[21] Students across the country led protests demanding democratic reforms and calling for president Daniel Ortega’s resignation. On September 15, 2018, police detained Ricardo Baltodano, a history professor at the Polytechnic University of Nicaragua and an active member of a civil society group known as Articulación de Movimientos Sociales y Sociedad Civil, which has played a leading role in the protest movement (AFMI 735). Thirty police officers raided Baltodano’s home shortly after he returned from a protest. Baltodano fled to his neighbor’s house, where police arrested him shortly thereafter. On September 18, police accused Baltodano of terrorism, murder, and other crimes. Baltodano was held incommunicado for the following nine months. He was ultimately released on June 11, 2019.

In Uganda, on November 2, 2018, authorities arrested Stella Nyanzi, a prominent scholar, feminist activist, and research fellow at Makere University on charges of “cyber harassment” and “offensive communication,” in apparent retaliation for her social media activity (AFMI 771). On September 16, Nyanzi published a Facebook post in which she reportedly insulted president Museveni and his late mother, suggesting that the country might have been in a better situation if the president had died at birth. Authorities took Nyanzi to the headquarters of the Special Investigations Division, where they informed her of the charges. While a court offered to release her on bail, Nyanzi refused, stating that she would like to see her case move forward. She was then held in pre-trial detention at Luzira Women’s Prison. On August 1, 2019, Nyanzi was found guilty of cyber harassment, but acquitted of the crime of offensive communications. She was sentenced to eighteen months in prison.

In Poland, in January and March 2019, the Law and Justice Party (PiS) and TVP, a state-run broadcasting agency, filed lawsuits against Wojciech Sadurski, a professor of law at the University of Warsaw and the University of Sydney, in Australia, for public comments he made criticizing the ruling party and the broadcaster (AFMI 824). On January 21, PiS filed a lawsuit over Sadurski’s social media comments from November 10, 2018, in which Sadurski denounced a government-organized Independence Day military parade, allegedly planned to occur alongside a far-right demonstration, and compared PiS to an “organized criminal group.” PiS alleged Sadurski’s comments caused harm to the party’s personal rights. On March 20, TVP indicted Sadurski for criminal defamation, claiming a January 16 social media comment by Sadurski caused reputational and financial loss. In the comment, Sadurski called on opposition politicians to not appear on “government media” channels who he alleged “hounded” Mayor Pawel Adamoicz before his assassination. On March 20, TVP filed a separate civil defamation lawsuit against Sadurski for the comment. The lawsuits remain pending as of this report.

In Pakistan, on February 9, police arrested Forman Christian College assistant professor and human rights activist Ammar Ali Jan, in apparent retaliation for his participation in a protest (AFMI 838). The protest was in response to the death of prominent Pashtun leader and professor Arman Loni, who was killed by police during a protest on February 2. A first information report, a document prepared by police about a complaint of an alleged crime, stated Jan led over one hundred protesters that chanted slogans critical of the government and blocked roads—charges that reportedly amount to treason. On February 9, police raided Jan’s house and arrested him. Police released Jan on bail several hours later.

In Indonesia, on March 7, police arrested Robertus Robet, a sociology professor at the State University of Jakarta, for singing a song critical of the military and government during a peaceful protest (AFMI 862). The arrest came just one day after a video of Robet singing at the protest went viral online. Authorities arrested Robet at his house and briefly held him in custody before releasing him and charging him for “insulting the military” under Indonesia’s electronic information and transactions law. If convicted, Robet could face up to four years in prison. Shortly after his arrest, Robet reportedly fled to Australia following online threats in response to the video.

In Saudi Arabia, on March 28, authorities arrested Anas al-Mazrouee, a law professor at King Saud University, in retaliation for public comments on human rights issues in the country (AFMI 885). Prior to his arrest, Al-Mazrouee had spoken at the International Book Exhibition, in Riyadh, about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and called for the release of wrongfully imprisoned human rights defenders.[22] A video of his speech circulated over social media, prompting the authorities to arrest him. Saudi authorities have not publicly disclosed al-Mazrouee’s whereabouts or whether he faces any charges.

In Turkey, as discussed in a subsequent chapter, hundreds of academics have been tried on terrorism-related charges for their endorsement of a petition criticizing state and military actions in the predominantly Kurdish, southeastern part of the country. As of this report, more than eight hundred “Academics for Peace,” as they are popularly known, have been charged with “propagandizing for a terrorist organization” and similar charges stemming from their endorsement of the petition.[23] More than two hundred have been convicted and issued sentences ranging from fifteen months to three years imprisonment; most scholars were issued suspended or deferred sentences, while at least thirty-six scholars’ sentences were to be appealed or executed.[24] On July 26, Turkey’s Constitutional Court ruled that the convictions against ten signatories to the Peace Petition violated their right to freedom of expression and ordered re-trials and compensation for the ten academics. More than three hundred Peace Petition signatories’ have since been acquitted in accordance with the Constitutional Court ruling.[25]

And in Sudan, also as discussed in a subsequent chapter, authorities detained large numbers of scholars and students for their participation in nationwide protests that began in December 2018. Protesters raised concerns over food shortages and economic conditions, and demanded the resignation of President Omar al-Bashir.


SAR urges state authorities to release scholars, students, and other members of the higher education community who have been wrongfully imprisoned or prosecuted in connection with their peaceful exercise of the rights to academic freedom, freedom of expression, or freedom of association. Pending their release, SAR calls on states to uphold their obligations under domestic and international law, including those related to due process and the humane treatment of prisoners.

SAR further urges state authorities, higher education communities, and society at large to review laws used to prosecute scholars and students and to amend or repeal them as necessary to ensure that scholars and students can peacefully think, question, and share ideas without retribution.

[18]             This number is a minimum estimate based on available information. Especially in incidents involving campus demonstrations, the number of students or faculty detained or charged is often not reported by media sources and state authorities.
[19]             See
[20]             Hedges’ arrest, which occurred outside of this reporting timeframe, was not made public until September 2018 and was therefore not included in Free to Think 2018. See
[21]             Gabriela Selser, “Nicaragua opposition eyes imminent deal on prisoner releases,” Associated Press, March 23, 2019,
[22]             Since May 2018, authorities began arresting women’s rights activists in apparent retaliation for demanding reforms including lifting the ban on female drivers. Human rights organizations have reported that the human rights defenders have been subjected to torture by electrocution, beatings, and sexual harassment.
[23]             Barış İçin Akademisyenler / Academics for Peace, “Academics for Peace – Hearing Statistics as of 06.09.2019,”, (last accessed October 4, 2019).
[24]             Ibid.
[25]             Ibid.
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Tensions Within India’s Higher Education Space

National political tensions in India have manifested in numerous incidents on campus. In a number of cases, incidents have turned violent, resulting in injuries to many students and university personnel, damage to university property, and campus closings. In addition, authorities have arrested scholars and students, both individually and en masse (with the numbers of detainees estimated in the hundreds); and several scholars and students have suffered professional or academic retaliation for critical expression. While these types of incidents are not necessarily new, the volume of attacks in India in recent years warrants a closer look at challenges facing scholars and students in the country.

Violent Clashes

Protests on university campuses have triggered violence by and between students and off-campus groups.

On September 12, 2018, at Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya, a university in Nadia, a group of roughly one hundred armed men attacked students who were participating in a class boycott and sit-in (AFMI 732). The protesting students were demanding the resignations of administrators who had requested police intervention during an earlier protest. The attackers reportedly broke through the main campus gate at night and began attacking the students with iron rods, bamboo sticks, and chains. At least two gunshots were also reported. Some attackers also allegedly broke into the women’s residence and sexually assaulted female students. At least ten students were reportedly injured in the attack.

The next day, at Mahatma Gandhi Central University (MGCU), a group of fifteen people attacked student Shakti Babu, in apparent retaliation for his campus activism (AFMI 734). Babu had recently posted videos of himself on social media attending a march supporting a professor who had been the victim of a violent attack a few weeks earlier. In comments posted along with the video, Babu criticized MGCU’s vice-chancellor. Shortly after posting the comments and video, Babu reportedly began receiving threatening phone calls. On September 13, as he left campus following a meeting with the president of the university’s teacher’s association to address the threats, Babu was ambushed and attacked. He suffered internal injuries and was hospitalized.

On October 4, violent clashes broke out during a demonstration at Sharda University (AFMI 749). Earlier that week, ethnic tensions on campus flared following an in-class fight between an Indian student and an Afghan student. The university suspended three students who were allegedly involved in the fight. Hundreds later gathered on campus to demand that the university take more severe action in response to the incident. Protesters reportedly dragged Afghan students out of a classroom and attacked them. Kashmiri students on campus were also reportedly targeted and beaten. Student witnesses reported that the violence was incited by members of a right-wing Hindu extremist group from outside the university. The campus was later closed for three days, and police reportedly filed complaints for rioting against three hundred fifty individuals in connection with the protest.

Violence broke out at Punjabi University on October 9, following several weeks of student protests led by the university’s Democratic Students’ Organization (DSO), over a curfew that applied only to female residence halls (AFMI 755). After university authorities refused to meet with the DSO over the curfew and reportedly urged students’ parents to bring their daughters home, DSO members gathered outside the vice-chancellor’s office. Clashes broke out when the DSO members were met by counter-protesters from several student organizations. At least ten students were reportedly injured, and campus property was destroyed. The university closed for the remainder of the week and authorities arrested seven students following the violence.

On February 7, 2019, on the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), a group of about one hundred fifty students were attacked while en route to a protest outside the office of the head of JMI’s Department of Applied Arts, who had recently been accused of sexual harassment and discriminatory comments and grading practices (AFMI 836). A group of students who were apparently supportive of the department head attacked the protesters, beating and groping several female students. At least one student was hospitalized. The university suspended three students suspected of participating in the attack.

On March 24, members of rival student groups—the Hindu nationalist Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and Marxist Students’ Federation of India—clashed violently, wielding swords and metal rods, on the campus of Himachal Pradesh University (AFMI 876). As of this report, it is unclear how the altercation began. Seventeen people from both factions were reportedly injured and nine people were arrested following the clash.

On May 14, violent clashes erupted between authorities and students during a protest just outside the gates of Amar Singh College (AFMI 918). The students were demonstrating to criticize the government’s response to a rape case involving a child in Kashmir, and what they alleged was a broader failure by the government to address rape cases. The protest began on campus, but when the students began marching toward the main road outside the campus, police prevented them from doing so. Clashes reportedly broke out between the two sides, with some students reportedly throwing stones at police, and police firing tear gas in return.

On July 22, violence between police and student demonstrators from the University of Kerala resulted in injuries to fifteen people (AFMI 952). The students were protesting to demand a government inquiry into a stabbing that had occurred on campus ten days earlier. During the protest, students reportedly threw objects at police officers and vehicles, and police reportedly beat students and fired tear gas, smoke grenades, and water cannons at student demonstrators. It is unclear who instigated the violence. Thirteen student demonstrators, a police officer, and a cameraman for a media outlet were injured. Police arrested six student demonstrators.

And on August 25, members of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), a student organization affiliated with the Communist Party of India, were reportedly putting up posters in a neighborhood near Delhi University when they were confronted by a group of individuals believed to be members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a right-wing student organization and a rival of SFI (AFMI 963). The individuals demanded that the SFI members stop putting up the posters, and further told them to withdraw a sexual harassment complaint that had been made against an ABVP leader. The students began taking down their posters, but the men began beating them, allegedly using a large stick with nails attached and cricket clubs. Three students were severely injured in the attack.

Police actions, including excessive force and arrests, appear to have escalated tensions during demonstrations and violated the rights of student and faculty protesters on campus.

In the fall of 2018, members of the student union and teachers association of Manipur University had been engaged in a monthslong series of on-campus protests, demanding that the school’s vice chancellor resign based on alleged corruption and incompetence. On September 20, a group of protesters confronted a university official appointed by the vice chancellor, claiming that his appointment was illegal. The official left the scene with six faculty and eight student protesters, and they apparently discussed the protesters’ concerns. The official later filed a police complaint alleging that the protesters had kidnapped him and held him against his will for several hours. Just after midnight that evening, on the basis of the official’s complaint, local police raided student dorms, got into violent altercations with students, deployed teargas, and ultimately took roughly ninety students and six faculty into custody (AFMI 739). Most of the students who were detained were released later that day; however, the eight students and six faculty who had left the earlier protest with the university official were held in detention.

The protests at Manipur University continued, and on October 10, police confronted a group of students and faculty engaged in a nonviolent march to the university’s administrative offices, to demand the release of their colleagues who had been detained since September 21. Once again, the police reportedly deployed tear gas and other crowd-control devices to disperse the protesters, before arresting eight (AFMI 756). On October 16, the students and faculty who had been arrested on September 21 were released and the kidnapping and related charges against them were dismissed for lack of sufficient evidence.

On October 12, police officers clashed with students on the campus of Maharshi Dayanand University, where roughly one thousand student union members gathered to protest a decision by local government authorities mandating that student government office-holders would be elected indirectly, by student representatives rather than the students themselves (AFMI 758). Police reportedly responded to the protests by charging at the crowd with batons in an effort to disperse them (a technique known as a “lathi charge”). According to reports, as many as fifty students were injured. Police later arrested more than twenty students in connection with the clash, claiming that the students had been attempting to disrupt the election, and had thrown bottles and rocks at police, while student leaders maintained their protest was peaceful.

On January 16, 2019, authorities reportedly detained hundreds of academic personnel during a peaceful protest outside the Ministry of Human Resource Development in New Delhi (AFMI 821). That morning, roughly two thousand research scholars and members of the All India Research Scholars Association from institutions across the country gathered in front of the Ministry to demand an increase in research scholars’ stipends. Late that afternoon, police detained hundreds of protesters and transported them by bus to two police stations. According to one source, by the following day, authorities had released the detained academics without charge.

And on June 28, police briefly detained twenty nonviolent student protesters at Allahabad University, who were engaged in several days of demonstrations concerning a decision by the university to reform student government (AFMI 944).

Authorities have also brought criminal charges against scholars in direct retaliation for their expressive activities.

On January 10, 2019, authorities in the northeastern state of Assam arrested and charged retired literature professor and critic Hiren Gohain, along with an activist and a journalist, with sedition and conspiracy in connection to public statements they made three days earlier at an event protesting a citizenship bill pending in India’s parliament (AFMI 819). Gohain and the other speakers charged that the bill was anti-democratic and religiously discriminatory, extending a path to citizenship to individuals who have fled religious persecution, so long as they were not Muslims. During his speech, Gohain reportedly highlighted the importance of secular principles within the Indian constitutional framework and mentioned “independent Assam,” referring to the northeast Indian state where a secessionist movement has existed for years. A court granted Gohain interim bail one day after his arrest.

In addition, on March 28, 2019, Indian authorities detained Jean Dreze, a renowned economist and a visiting professor at Ranchi University, for holding a public meeting to discuss the “Right to Food” movement, a social movement seeking broader recognition of access to adequate food and nutrition as fundamental social and human rights (AFMI 884). Shortly after the meeting began, police reportedly surrounded and detained Dreze, along with an unspecified number of activists. Dreze was released on bail shortly thereafter. Police claimed they had arrested him because he lacked a required permit, while Dreze claimed that local authorities had ignored multiple attempts by the event’s organizers to obtain written permission to hold a public event, and that the permit requirement only applied to political parties, not private citizens.

Professional Retaliation

In several documented cases, university officials in India have retaliated against scholars and students for the content of their academic or political expression through disciplinary measures, including suspension and expulsion.

On September 7, 2018, the Central University of Kerala’s administration suspended Prasad Pannian, an associate professor of English and comparative literature, from his position as department head. The suspension was in response to Pannian’s publication of a social media post that criticized the arrest of a PhD candidate and Dalit student-activist (AFMI 728).

In February 2019, multiple individuals faced retaliation for their public comments in response to a suicide attack in Kashmir in which forty Indian security personnel were killed. On February 17, university administrators at Icon College of Commerce in Guwahati suspended Papri Banerjee, an assistant professor of English, for “objectionable remarks” after she posted social media messages calling the attack “an act of cowardice” that “would break the heart of any Indian” but also apparently claiming that the attack was a response to the violent conduct of Indian security services in Kashmir. On the day she was suspended, Banerjee was also criminally charged with “public mischief” and questioned by police (AFMI 847). Sadaf Rafiq Zaffar, an undergraduate student at Shree Guru Gobind Singh Tricentenary University, similarly engaged in debates on social media in the days following the attack, accusing the Indian military of atrocities in Kashmir. On February 19, more than five hundred student protesters gathered on campus to demand her dismissal. In response, the university’s disciplinary committee reportedly met briefly and decided to expel her, reportedly calling the posts “anti-national” (AFMI 850).

On March 15, 2019, students at Rajiv Ghandi National Law University publicly protested the quality of food in their residence (AFMI 868). This immediately triggered an investigation by the university, after which the students were suspended for “indiscipline.”

Finally on July 11, 2019, Indranil Bhattacharya, a faculty member at the Bombay Film & Television Institute, was suspended from his position in retaliation for a Facebook post critical of the government (AFMI 949).

Encroachment on University Autonomy

On July 16, 2019, officials in the state of Uttar Pradesh passed an ordinance known as the Uttar Pradesh Private Universities Act, which would, among other things, prohibit “anti-national” activity on the campuses of any of the state’s twenty-nine private universities and require the institutions to establish regulations consistent with the act.[26] The term “anti-national” is undefined, raising grave concerns among scholars and others that the ordinance will encroach on university autonomy and limit free expression and thought on campus. The act went into effect on September 1, 2019.[27]


Collectively, these incidents raise significant concerns about growing pressures within India’s higher education space, driven by both government actors and significant tensions among campus groups. This trend appears capable of significantly chilling campus expression, and should be met by scholars, students, local governments, and Indian society more broadly with a public re-commitment to principles of academic freedom and related values, including institutional autonomy and social responsibility.

SAR calls on Indian state authorities to refrain from the use of force, wrongful arrests and prosecutions, and other actions intended to restrict or retaliate against scholars’ and students’ nonviolent exercise of academic freedom and related freedoms of expression, assembly, and association.

SAR further calls on scholars, students and staff, when engaging in expressive activity, to refrain from violent, coercive, or other conduct which interferes with their colleagues’ exercise of academic freedom and related freedoms of expression, assembly, and association.

[26]             Khinvraj Jangid, “‘No anti-nationalism’ clause threatens critical thinking,” University World News, July 27, 2019,
[27]             “Uttar Pradesh: Private varsity law notified, govt gets regulatory power,” The Times of India, September 3, 2019,
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Ongoing Attacks on Turkey’s Academics

Over the past year, Turkish authorities continued to prosecute Academics for Peace, a group of scholars, research assistants, and other academic personnel, on terrorism-related charges in retaliation for their endorsement of a January 2016 petition calling for peace in the embattled Kurdish regions of Turkey. Meanwhile, thousands of university personnel accused of affiliations disfavored by the state and linked to a July 2016 coup attempt remain fired, barred from civil service employment, and unable to leave the country, as per a series of State of Emergency decrees.

While the State of Emergency has since been lifted[28] and a July 2019 constitutional court ruling may offer relief to hundreds of academics prosecuted for endorsing the Peace Petition, the impact of this crackdown—now well into its third year—has been devastating for many thousands of university personnel and students, and risks irreparably damaging the reputation and future of Turkey’s higher education sector.

Academics for Peace

On January 11, 2016, a group of professors, lecturers, research assistants, and PhD candidates known as the “Academics for Peace” published a petition titled “We will not be a party to this crime.” The petition strongly condemned the Turkish government’s anti-terror policies in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern part of the country and urged state authorities to resume peace negotiations. At the time of its original release, 1,128 academics from 89 universities in Turkey had endorsed the petition, with more than two thousand academics, including many from around the world, ultimately signing on.

Immediately following the petition’s publication, Turkish authorities, and in particular President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, denounced Academics for Peace and began taking a range of retaliatory actions against the group. State and higher education authorities launched criminal and administrative investigations against the signatories, which in many cases resulted in detentions, arrests, and prosecutions on terrorism-related charges, as well as suspensions, firings, and other disciplinary actions by university administrators.

Starting in the fall of 2017, Turkish authorities brought Peace Petition signatories under a nearly uniform bill of indictment, charging them with violating Article 7(2) of Turkey’s Anti-Terror Law for disseminating “terrorist propaganda.”[29]

Scholars convicted in the Peace Petition proceedings have most frequently been sentenced to fifteen months’ imprisonment, with some receiving sentences of two to three years. In most cases, courts have suspended or deferred sentences, whereby those convicted can avoid prison time so long as they are not subsequently convicted of separate offenses. Defendants may also reject a suspension or deferral in order to preserve their right to an appeal.

As of this report, court proceedings were initiated against more than eight hundred signatories to the Peace Petition.[30] Of those, 203 have been sentenced, including 167 who have been issued suspended or deferred sentences.[31]

At least thirty-six convicted Peace Petition signatories have not had their sentences suspended or deferred.[32] These include defendants whose prison sentences are longer than two years, defendants who have rejected a deferment of the announcement of the verdict, and in some cases defendants who the court claims did not “express remorse” for endorsing the Peace Petition. This last subset of decisions has generated considerable international attention.

On December 19, 2018, the İstanbul 37th Heavy Penal Court convicted and sentenced forensics scholar and human rights defender Şebnem Korur Fincancı to two years and six months imprisonment (AFMI 802). The presiding judge did not reduce or suspend Fincancı’s sentence, citing the scholar’s alleged lack of remorse regarding the charge. Fincancı’s classes were suspended by Turkey’s Higher Education Council (YÖK) in September 2016 in connection with her endorsement of the Peace Petition.[33] She and two others had also been facing terrorism-related charges in a separate case related to their solidarity activities with the pro-Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem.[34] On July 17, 2019, a court acquitted Fincancı and her co-defendants in the Özgür Gündem case.

On February 25, 2019, the İstanbul Regional Court of Justice upheld the conviction and sentencing of Zübeyde Füsun Üstel, a scholar of political science and a former Galatasaray University professor.[35] Füsun Üstel had appealed an April 2018 ruling by İstanbul’s 32nd Heavy Criminal Court, which convicted her on a “terrorist propaganda” charge. Füsun Üstel reportedly declined to have the court defer the announcement of the verdict in her case in order to preserve her right to appeal the court’s ruling and to argue that endorsement of a petition calling for peace is not a crime. During her appeal hearing, the court reportedly cited Füsun Üstel’s lack of remorse as grounds for upholding the İstanbul Heavy Court’s conviction and sentencing. On May 8, Füsun Üstel entered Eskişehir Women’s Closed Prison as the first academic to begin serving a prison sentence explicitly for their endorsement of the Peace Petition. On July 22, after seventy-five days in custody, authorities released Füsun Üstel following a court decision to suspend her sentence while she awaited an appeal.

On May 21, the İstanbul 25th Heavy Penal Court sentenced Sabancı University professor Ayşe Gül Altınay to two years and one month imprisonment on a charge of “knowingly and willingly aiding a terrorist organization as a non-member” (AFMI 920). At her final hearing, one judge reportedly dissented, stating that Altınay should have instead been charged with “propagandizing for a terrorist organization.” Altınay’s sentence was not deferred, as she was sentenced to more than two years’ imprisonment.

The prosecution of Peace Petition signatories took a major change of course on July 26, when Turkey’s Constitutional Court ruled in a nine-to-eight decision that the conviction of ten academics for their endorsement of the petition violated their right to freedom of expression.[36] The court ordered that lower courts conduct retrials and that the defendants be paid 9,000 lira (roughly $1,595 USD) in compensation. The decision could serve as a significant precedent in the Peace Petition proceedings, with the possibility of ongoing prosecutions being dropped and past verdicts being overturned in appeal proceedings. Indeed, by October 2019, more than three hundred Peace Petition signatories had reportedly been acquitted.[37] It remains to be seen whether and how the Constitutional Court ruling will figure into appeals of dismissals and travel restrictions ordered by State of Emergency decrees, as discussed later in this chapter.

Despite this positive development, the prosecutions and other actions targeting the Academics for Peace have nevertheless had a devastating impact. Mounting legal fees have created significant burdens for scholars and their families and the very public nature of the court proceedings and the severity of the charges risk irreparably tarnishing academic careers. Moreover, the consequences imposed by the state for endorsing the Peace Petition are also likely to have a severe chilling effect on academic expression and inquiry in Turkey, dissuading current and future scholars and students from fully exercising their academic freedom.

Loss of Position and Travel Restrictions

Throughout Turkey, thousands of academics remain in a state of “civil death”—fired from their university positions, barred from future public employment, and unable to legally leave the country after being accused of affiliations the government disfavors or believes are connected to alleged terrorist organizations.

Six months after the publication of the Peace Petition, the Turkish government announced a State of Emergency in response to a violent coup attempt on July 15, 2016, that left more than 240 people dead and nearly 2,200 injured. Under the State of Emergency, the government took sweeping actions targeting the higher education sector, among other areas of civil society, in an effort to oust from public institutions individuals accused of supporting the coup attempt. These accusations have primarily been based on alleged connections to Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim cleric living in exile in the United States since 1999, who government officials claim coordinated the coup attempt.

Over the next two years, Turkish authorities detained and arrested hundreds of scholars and students for alleged connections to Gülen, without evidence or with specious evidence, such as possession of US one-dollar bills (whose serial numbers purportedly indicate their rank in Gülen’s network) or having attended an educational institution supported by Gülen. The status of many of those arrested remains unknown.

During this time, Erdoğan’s government also issued State of Emergency decrees that ordered, among other things, the closure of 15 universities and the dismissal of more than 7,500 academic and administrative personnel from Turkish universities, including many signatories to the Peace Petition. Another 301 university students were further expelled from their institutions. University personnel targeted with dismissal are permanently banned from public sector employment and are subject to a travel ban. The public nature of the decrees has made it impossible for academics named in the decrees to obtain positions at private universities. Unable to work in Turkey or to seek work in exile, dismissed academics have described the decree orders as career-ending.

In January 2017, a State of Emergency Appeals Commission (OHAL) was ordered to assess and respond to requests from those who believed they were wrongfully targeted by the decrees. On August 29, 2019, OHAL announced that it had received 126,200 applications, with decisions made on 84,300 (roughly two-thirds).[38] Approximately eight percent of those applications were reportedly decided in favor of the applicants; it is unclear how many involved higher education personnel. According to State of Emergency decree No. 694, the Higher Education Council (YÖK) will assign reinstated academics to universities where they were not previously employed, giving priority to universities outside of Turkey’s major urban centers.[39] Applicants whose appeals are rejected by OHAL may appeal through Turkey’s administrative courts.[40] As OHAL does not publish written decisions or publicly explain its legal reasoning for those decisions, it is impossible to determine what standards for evidence or reversal have been applied, thereby making it impossible to view the commission as a viable pathway to relief for scholars, students, or others whose rights the state may have violated

State Repression of Other Critical Expression

In addition to the ongoing punishment of the Peace Petition signatories and those accused of affiliations disfavored by the government, Turkish authorities have in a number of other high-profile incidents used travel restrictions, imprisonment, and prosecutions in order to retaliate against and restrict nonviolent academic and expressive activity and associations.

On November 9, 2018, police detained legal scholar Cenk Yiğiter in apparent retaliation for his online expression (AFMI 775). Yiğiter, a Peace Petition signatory, was dismissed from his position at Ankara University by order of emergency decree in January 2017. Shortly after he posted comments on the impact of the dismissal to social media, anti-terrorism police raided Yiğiter’s home and detained him. Authorities interrogated Dr. Yiğiter over the course of three days and released him on November 12. Yiğiter was charged with “engaging in actions and activities in the name of a terrorist organisation” for his social media activity and comments he made to the press regarding his dismissal in 2017.

On November 16, Turkish authorities detained Turgut Tarhanlı, dean of the faculty of law at İstanbul Bilgi University, and Betul Tanbay, professor of mathematics at Boğaziçi University, along with ten others, for alleged connections to human rights activist Osman Kavala and a series of protests that took place across Turkey in 2013 (AFMI 781). Kavala, a business leader who co-founded the civil society organization Anadolu Kültür in 2002, was detained in October 2017 for his alleged role in organizing the 2013 Gezi Park protests. Police detained Professors Tarhanlı and Tanbay, along with ten others, in the early morning hours based on their alleged connections to Kavala and their alleged participation in the Gezi Park protests. By November 17, authorities had released the detainees after taking their statements.

On December 10, Turkish authorities arrested Berivan Bila, a journalism student at Karadeniz Technical University, for “insulting the president” (AFMI 798). The charge stemmed from a July 2017 article Bila wrote titled, “Journalism is Not a Crime,” which was in response to the detention of Cumhuriyet reporters, and expressed concern over eroding press freedoms in Turkey. In early December 2018, state authorities reportedly issued a warrant for Bila’s arrest in connection to the July 2017 article. On December 17, authorities released Bila after a week in custody.

On May 10, 2019, police fired tear gas at demonstrators on the campus of Middle East Technical University (METU) and detained twenty-five people during a campus Pride parade (AFMI 915). Days before the parade, METU’s rector announced that the annual campus Pride parade—an increasingly common event around the world to show solidarity with the LGBTQ community—would not be permitted (AFMI 911). When students held the Pride parade on campus despite the ban, police informed them they were not permitted to fly a rainbow flag, sit on the lawn, or stand under tents. Police prevented students from reading a prepared statement at the parade, before reportedly firing tear gas at the group, and then arresting twenty-four students and one professor.

And on May 11, Turkish authorities arrested mathematics professor Ahmet Tuna Altınel (AFMI 916). Altınel, who has taught mathematics for more than twenty-five years at the University of Lyon 1, in France, had been on trial for his endorsement of the Peace Petition and had attended one of his court hearings in February 2019. In April 2019, Turkish authorities confiscated Altınel’s passport upon his return to Turkey for a family visit. When Altınel went to a police station in Balikesir on May 11 to inquire about his passport, authorities interrogated and then arrested him. Sources indicate that authorities charged him with “propagandizing for a terrorist organization,” apparently based on accusations that Altınel expressed support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) by organizing and participating in a screening of the documentary “Djizré, histoire d’un massacre” (translated as “Cizre, history of a massacre”), held in Lyon, France, on February 21. The screening featured the presence of Faysal Sariyildiz, an exiled representative of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which opponents accuse of being aligned with the PKK. Associates of Altınel and the organizers of the screening rebutted the authorities’ allegations, asserting that Altınel did not organize the screening, is not a supporter of the PKK, and had only offered to translate the remarks of representative Sariyildiz. During his first hearing on July 30—following months of advocacy by academic groups and French officials—the Balıkesir 2nd Heavy Penal Court ordered Altınel’s release without judicial control and exempted him from attending future hearings connected to this case.


Turkey’s higher education community is nearly four years into a state-led campaign of attacks on the freedom to think, question, and share ideas.

Thousands of university personnel and students remain exiled from Turkey’s universities as a result of emergency decrees. Meanwhile, the prosecutions of the Academics for Peace, along with a steady flow of reports of retaliatory attacks on academic and expressive activity, continue to send a message to scholars, students, and all members of Turkish society that ideas that question government policy, rhetoric, or norms will be met with serious consequences.

The impact of actions by Turkish authorities on the higher education sector—actions allegedly intended to address national security issues—is becoming increasingly apparent. Indeed, in June 2019, the UK-based Times reported that five of Turkey’s elite universities had fallen in the QS World University Rankings.[41]

To secure the future of Turkey’s higher education sector, Turkish authorities must remedy previous individual and sector-wide actions, including by fulfilling all constitutional and international human rights obligations related to academic freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and due process; releasing all wrongfully detained individuals; dropping charges against those wrongfully prosecuted; and reversing convictions based on nonviolent expression and associations.

Leaders of higher education institutions, including Turkey’s Higher Education Council (YÖK), and other members of civil society should press state authorities to accelerate the aforementioned actions; to suspend any investigations, prosecutions, detentions, or other pending disciplinary measures; and to ensure due process for all victims under prosecution or in appeals proceedings.

Finally, government and higher education leaders around the world who support academic freedom are urged to press Turkish state and higher education authorities to accelerate these actions and to demonstrate publicly their own commitment to academic freedom in Turkey by insisting on academic freedom as a central tenet of their partnerships in Turkey, and by creating opportunities to support Turkish scholars and students who have been dismissed or forced into exile.

[28]             Despite this, the Turkish government passed anti-terrorism legislation that closely mirrored elements of the State of Emergency, including provisions that extend detentions without charge and permit dismissals of higher education personnel and other civil servants and the cancellation of their passports by decree.
[29]             Under Article 7(2), “any person who disseminates propaganda in favour of a terrorist organisation by justifying, praising or encouraging the use of methods constituting coercion, violence or threats shall be liable to a term of imprisonment of one to five years…”
[30]             Barış İçin Akademisyenler / Academics for Peace, “Academics for Peace – Hearing Statistics as of 06.09.2019,”, (last accessed October 4, 2019).
[31]             Ibid.
[32]             Barış İçin Akademisyenler / Academics for Peace, “Academics for Peace – Hearing Statistics as of 06.09.2019,”, (last accessed October 4, 2019).
[33]             See
[34]             See
[35]             See
[36]             Ali Kucukgocmen, “Turkish court rules academics’ rights violated in Kurdish letter case: Anadolu,” Reuters, July 26, 2019,; “Court says Turkey violated petition-signing scholars’ rights,” Associated Press, July 26, 2019,
[37]             Barış İçin Akademisyenler / Academics for Peace, “Academics for Peace – Hearing Statistics as of 06.09.2019,”, (last accessed October 4, 2019).
[38]             The Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures (OHAL), “Announcement on the Decisions of the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures (29 August 2019),” August 29, 2019,, (last accessed September 13, 2019).
[39]             See Article 198 at
[40]             OHAL, “Examination Process,” (last accessed September 13, 2019).
[41]             Hannah Lucinda Smith, “Turkish universities fall in tables after Erdogan’s purges,” The Times, June 25, 2019,
(Table of Contents)

Global Pressures on Student Expression

Students engage in collective and individual acts of expression on a variety of issues, ranging from the rising cost of tuition and campus accommodations, to sexual assault, labor rights, and government reform. Students bring attention to these issues through sit-ins, marches, letters, vigils, and other forms of expression that take place on and off-campus.

Student expression is crucial to the educational process, academic freedom, public discourse, and democratic society. Student expression is protected under international human rights standards for academic freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, and the right to education. Frequently, however, state and non-state actors restrict and retaliate against student expression through the use of violent force, coercive legal and disciplinary actions, and other measures. Beyond violating internationally recognized human rights, attacks on student expression chill the learning environment and the free inquiry and expression required for open, democratically legitimate societies.

During this reporting period, SAR reported more than one hundred incidents connected with student expression. The majority of these included violent attacks, arrests, prosecutions, and coercive administrative actions that directly impacted hundreds of students, university personnel, and others. A subset of incidents were marked by students engaged in violent acts, including the use of violence against others and the destruction of university property. In some cases, violent incidents have resulted in the closing of campuses or cancellation of academic activities. Violent acts by authorities, students, or others not only endanger members of the higher education community and threaten to escalate tensions—they also undermine the university’s ability to serve as a space for research, teaching, and the exchange of ideas.

Given the magnitude and frequency of these incidents—indeed, they constitute roughly one third of incidents SAR reported this year—state and higher education authorities, students, and civil society are urged to focus special attention on the need to promote and protect nonviolent student expression.

Violent Attacks on Student Expression

State and private security forces frequently used violent force against students in connection with their expression. At least nine students were killed and many more were injured as a result of authorities using weapons, including live ammunition, rubber bullets, tear gas, tasers, batons, and other tactics to retaliate against or restrict student expression.

In Pakistan, on October 4, 2018, police used batons to beat students holding a protest at the University of Peshawar (AFMI 747). At least fifteen students were injured during the protest, which was organized in response to a student fee hike.

In Zambia, police use of tear gas in response to an October 5, protest at the University of Zambia resulted in a dormitory fire and the death of a student (AFMI 750). Students were protesting alleged delays in meal and accommodation allowances at the university when police on the scene clashed violently with them. Many of the students fled, with officers pursuing protesters to a female dormitory. Officers fired tear gas canisters at the dormitory, setting it on fire and forcing students to escape by jumping from the windows. As a result, fourth-year student Vespers Shimuzhila died of smoke inhalation.

In Ghana, on October 19, roughly twenty campus security officers at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology used stun guns, batons, and tasers to disperse student protesters (AFMI 762). The students were reportedly decrying an order by the university administration to suspend a campus tradition of Friday night singing and dancing. Security officers attempting to quash the protest chased after a third-year student and violently beat him. He was later hospitalized for his injuries. Five months later, on March 14, 2019, the University of Education, Winneba, closed for nearly one month following violent clashes between police and protesters (AFMI 866). During a demonstration over the dismissal of three professors, allegedly for their public disagreements with the university’s administration, police fired tear gas into campus buildings where classes were taking place and into bushes where student protesters were taking cover. At least ten students and civilians were injured.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, police used lethal force in response to at least three student protests, resulting in the death of five students. On November 12, 2018, graduate student Hyacinthe Kimbafu was killed during a peaceful student protest at the University of Kinshasa over a faculty strike (AFMI 777). Police fired tear gas and live ammunition at students, chasing them into dormitories. Days later, during a protest over Kimafu’s death, police opened fire again on students, killing undergraduate student Rodrigue Eliwo (AFMI 780). And on January 27, 2019, at the University of Lubumbashi, police shot and killed three students who were returning from a protest over student fees and electricity and gas shutoffs that affected their campus (AFMI 828).

In Venezuela, hundreds of police and National Guard officers blocked students from exiting the Central University of Venezuela during a November 21 protest (AFMI 786). Roughly four hundred students planned to march from campus to the Ministry of Higher Education to demand better university conditions and to protest a national economic crisis. Authorities fired tear gas at students, who, in turn, threw bottles and stones. Several students were hospitalized.

In Chile, police used water cannons and tear gas to quash several student protests. On November 28, police fired water cannons at law students participating in a nonviolent protest at the University of Valparaíso (AFMI 788). The students were demonstrating on campus to show support for port employees who had been on strike. Once police arrived on campus, they fired water cannons at a building where students sought cover, shattering a glass door. One student protester had to be hospitalized after being hit by glass shards. Other incidents of violent force by Chilean police were reported on April 25 in Santiago, when roughly five thousand students marching for education reform were met with tear gas, water cannons, and armored vehicles (AFMI 906), and on June 5, at the Metropolitan University of Education Sciences, where police entered campus and violently clashed with students demanding a “free, non-sexist, and quality education” (AFMI 931).

In Sri Lanka, on December 4, a protest led by a coalition of student unions was confronted by police using tear gas and water cannons. The coalition, the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF), had been marching from the University of the Visual and Performing Arts in Colombo to the Presidential Secretariat to deliver a letter over the alleged repression of university students (AFMI 794). Police in Sri Lanka also used tear gas and water cannons in response to at least three subsequent student protests led by the IUSF on March 13, March 19, and August 28 (AFMI 865, 869, and 968).

In Algeria, months of student protests over the tenure of then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the confirmation of his successor and interim president, Abdelkader Bensalah, were met with excessive police force. During a weekly student protest held in Algiers to denounce president Bensalah, police fired water cannons and tear gas at students who protested and chanted “Out with Bensalah! Out with the system” (AFMI 896). Similar acts of police violence were reported on April 17, 2019, when officers raided a meeting about the protests (AFMI 898), and on June 2, during another weekly demonstration (AFMI 928).

In Nigeria, on April 25, police raided off-campus student dormitories near Adekunle Ajasin University, where they beat and fired tear gas at an unknown number of students (AFMI 905). The day before, on April 24, students had held a protest over a new university policy that prevented students who had not paid university fees from taking mandatory exams. The protest reportedly disrupted campus activities and the administration ordered the campus closed until May 20.

In Guinea, on May 30, police violently responded to a peaceful student protest at the University of Labé over a university official’s decision to require two students to take exams, despite their being hospitalized for severe injuries from a traffic accident (AFMI 926). When Amadou Boukariou Baldé, a computer science student, attempted to flee, police beat him. Baldé died from the injuries.

And in Honduras, on June 24, forty military police entered the National Autonomous University of Honduras and fired tear gas at students during a demonstration calling for the resignation of President Juan Orlando Hernandez (AFMI 940). After students reportedly responded to the tear gas by throwing stones, police chased students, firing live ammunition and injuring at least five.

Non-state groups and individuals have also carried out violent attacks on students engaged in peaceful activity.

In Mexico, students holding a peaceful protest at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) were attacked by a group of students accompanied by other off-campus individuals on September 3, 2018 (AFMI 727). The students had gathered to protest the recent murder of a female student and the threat of gang violence on campus. Shortly after the protest began, at least eighteen individuals arrived on campus and attacked students with molotov cocktails and knives, leaving at least two students with serious injuries. Reports indicate the attackers were members of “porros,” groups of students at Mexican universities who are essentially contracted to advance the interests of off-campus groups, including criminal entities. State authorities reportedly arrested several suspects and UNAM officials expelled at least twenty-two students suspected to have been involved in the attack.

In Brazil, leading up to and after the October 2018 presidential election, political tensions and aggressions toward the higher education sector have escalated and resulted in violence targeting students and academic personnel. On October 19, six individuals attacked fifteen students from the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro for canvassing on behalf of presidential candidate Fernando Haddad just outside the campus walls (AFMI 761).

In Venezuela, on November 14, 2018, civilians joined state security forces in a raid on the University of Carabobo (AFMI 779). Security forces fired tear gas at students participating in a student election while civilians reportedly pointed guns at and beat students, and seized voting urns.

In Malaysia, on March 22, 2019, supporters of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak taunted and violently attacked University of Malaya students who were protesting Razak’s appearance on campus (AFMI 875). Across the street from the event, students held posters demanding Razak return funds he allegedly embezzled. A group of men then approached the students, intimidated them, and tore up their posters. One of the men choked and slapped student organizer Wong Yan Ke.

In Iran, on May 13, pro-government activists confronted University of Tehran students during a peaceful on-campus protest, with one activist assaulting a student (AFMI 917). The students gathered to protest a requirement that women wear a hijab on campus and to demand broader reforms. Pro-government activists shouted slogans at the students including “students may die, but we will not tolerate indignity.” The pro-government activists followed students into the university auditorium where one pro-government activist punched a student. A physical altercation between some students and pro-government activists ensued. Students allege the pro-government activists are members of Basij, a paramilitary group associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, a branch of the Iranian Armed Forces.

In Serbia, on June 7, a group of unidentified men attacked University of Novi Sad students Marko Đelević and Mihajlo Nikolić with metal bars in apparent retaliation for their activism (AFMI 932). Upon returning to campus after a protest over an urban development plan, the students noticed they were being followed into a campus building. When exiting the building, a group of men beat the students. One day later, on June 8, unidentified individuals beat student Dejan Bagaric unconscious after he returned to the University of Novi Sad’s campus following his participation in a pro-democracy protest he helped organize (AFMI 933). The assailants threw Bagaric to the ground outside a university dining hall and beat him, resulting in several bone fractures and head injuries. Police in Novi Sad launched investigations into both attacks, and reportedly arrested one suspect.

Imprisonment and Prosecution

State authorities arrested, detained, or prosecuted over 280 students during this reporting period, frequently under laws or on grounds related to terrorism, insulting the government, or unlawful assembly.

In Iran, on September 3, 2018, authorities arrested Rezvaneh Mohammadi, a women’s studies graduate student at Iran Academia, an online university, apparently for her work promoting gender equality (AFMI 726). Authorities searched her home and confiscated several items including her birth certificate, laptop, passport, and undergraduate certificate from Golestan University. After being held in solitary confinement and subjected to interrogations for twenty-six days in Evin prison, Mohammadi was released on bail on October 20. Months later, on February 17, 2019, a court tried Mohammadi in absentia on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security by seeking to normalize homosexual relations.” The evidence used at the trial reportedly include her thesis research and attendance at two gender equality conferences abroad.

Also in Iran, on February 13, 2019, authorities arrested Hakim Sabzevari University student Mojtaba Dadashi, in apparent retaliation for expression critical of the government (AFMI 845). Nine days earlier, Dadashi, a political science student, posted a video on social media in which he said “this regime is neither Islamic, nor a republic, nor revolutionary. . . This regime is ruled by a minority that has sucked the blood out of this country for 40 years.” Authorities arrested Dadashi on charges of “insulting the supreme leader,” “insulting the heads of the three branches of state,” and “propaganda against the state.” Authorities released Dadashi on bail on February 17. Following a closed door trial on March 16, a court sentenced Dadashi to three years imprisonment and seventy-four lashes on April 3. Dadashi began serving his sentence on April 13 in Sabzevar prison.

In Nicaragua, on September 10, 2018, police detained Amaya Eva Coppens, a fifth-year medical student at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua, in León, and a leader in a nationwide protest movement that began in April 2018 calling for president Daniel Ortega’s resignation and democratic reforms (AFMI 731). Police dressed as paramilitary officers raided a safe house where Coppens temporarily sought refuge from death threats and harassment. Officers detained Coppens and Sergio Midence, another student leader. On September 19, a court charged Coppens with kidnapping, terrorism, and illegal possession of firearms. She was then transferred from “El Chipote” prison to “La Esperanza,” a women’s prison. Coppens was released on June 11, 2019, after a series of negotiations in which Ortega agreed to release 802 detained persons. Coppens continues to face charges.

In Yemen, on October 6, members of a Houthi militia attacked and detained fifty-five students who were participating in a demonstration just outside of the University of Sana’a (AFMI 751). The students were protesting the dire state of the economy and diminishing standards of living in the country. The militia reportedly demanded that the detained students take a pledge to abstain from any future protests as a condition for their release.

In Mauritania, authorities detained two students during a nonviolent protest on October 9 (AFMI 754). Student unions and associations from various universities held the protest in response to an order by the Ministry for Higher Education and Scientific Research to bar high school graduates over the age of twenty-five from pursuing higher education.

In China, authorities detained students and recent university graduates in connection with their activism and participation in Marxist student groups on campus. As detailed in a subsequent chapter, students at some of China’s elite universities have coordinated protests and other actions to express solidarity with factory workers. SAR reported the detention or disappearance of more than twenty students involved in labor activism or associations on Chinese university campuses over the past year.

In Turkey, on December 10, 2018, authorities arrested Karadeniz Technical University journalism student Berivan Bila on charges of “insulting the president” after she published an article titled “Journalism is Not a Crime” (AFMI 797). The article was published in July 2017 in response to the detention of Cumhuriyet reporters, and expressed concern over press freedom in the country. Bila was released on December 17.

And in Myanmar, authorities arrested, tried, and convicted seven students for their participation in a series of protests at Yadanapon University (AFMI 812 and 846). Since December 2018, students held protests demanding better campus security after the reported murders of three students and other criminal activity targeting members of the campus community. On February 13, 2019, the students were sentenced to five months in prison for violating the peaceful assembly law and burning effigies.

University Disciplinary Measures

Higher education authorities have suspended, expelled, and taken other disciplinary actions against students for their expressive activities.

In Hong Kong, on March 1, 2019, Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) expelled one student, gave a one-year suspension to another, and assigned community service to two more in connection to a campus “Lennon Wall” modeled on a free expression space in 1980s Communist Prague that began as a tribute to murdered musician John Lennon (AFMI 857). In September 2018, students transformed their political bulletin board on campus to a Lennon Wall, which had more relaxed guidelines on content that could be posted. PolyU authorities covered the wall with red paper after students refused to remove political content, including a banner promoting a pro-independence party that had recently been banned in Hong Kong. Following a confrontation between students and administrators over the Lennon Wall, university officials opened a disciplinary investigation into the students.

In India, on March 15, Rajiv Gandhi National Law University suspended six students following a protest in which they publicly demanded improvements in the quality of campus food services (AFMI 868). On March 14, students reportedly picked up their empty plates and clanged them against the tables at the university cafeteria to demand safe and hygienic food. Following the protest, the administration reportedly established an investigation committee and ordered the suspension of six students for “indiscipline.” Reports do not suggest that the students’ actions were violent or destructive. On March 18, following several days of continuing protests, the university lifted the suspension order.

In the United Kingdom, on March 19, King’s College London temporarily denied ten students access to campus buildings during a visit by the Queen and Duchess of Cambridge (AFMI 870). As a result, the students were unable to attend classes, take exams, and give class presentations. The ten students were members of political organizations on campus, including Action Palestine and Justice for Cleaners. University administrators reportedly banned the students in connection with their past activism. The students were allegedly identified in CCTV footage from protests in recent years.

And in Indonesia, on March 20, North Sumatra University (USU) officials dismissed the student staff of a university newspaper for publishing a fictional story about a same-sex couple (AFMI 871). The story, about the challenges of a young woman in love with another woman, was circulated widely over social media. Shortly thereafter, the newspaper’s web-hosting service informed the students that it would take down their site because the popular story allegedly contained “pornography and LGBT elements.” The students quickly found another server to host their content. On March 20, USU’s president summoned the eighteen student members of the newspaper and demanded they remove the story, claiming it “promoted homosexuality,” contained “pornography,” and contradicted USU’s values. The university dismissed the students from their posts on the newspaper when they refused to take down the story.

Student Violence

While state security forces and other off-campus groups have been identified as perpetrators in the majority of violent incidents, some students also engaged in violent acts, putting themselves and other members of the campus community in danger.

In Ghana, on October 22, 2018, in response to an aforementioned protest at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), students held a demonstration during which some students burned tires on the streets, destroyed vehicles and campus property, and marched to student dormitories to prevent other students from attending class (AFMI 763). Authorities fired gunshots in the air to disperse students and reportedly arrested eighteen students in connection with the violence. In response to the violent protest, KNUST’s administration and the Ashanti Regional Security Council ordered the university closed indefinitely. KNUST reopened on November 16 and lectures resumed on the 19th.

In Honduras, on January 28, 2019, students at the National Autonomous University of Honduras held a campus protest in which some students burned tires at the campus entrance and threw stones at security forces (AFMI 829). Authorities reportedly fired tear gas in return, forcing the students to disperse. The protest was calling for the resignation of President Juan Orlando Hernández.

That same day in Liberia, pro-government students clashed with pro-opposition students holding a protest at the campus gates of the University of Liberia’s Capitol Hill campus (AFMI 830). The students gathered at the gates to protest a ban on student political activities and a temporary suspension of campus activities ordered by Liberian president George Weah. Pro-government students confronted the student protesters and violently clashed, throwing stones at each other.

Starting in February 2019, in South Africa, students across the country held protests over rising fees, financial assistance, and accommodations, among other issues. During a February 5 protest at the Durban University of Technology, some student protesters reportedly threw bricks and rocks while attempting to storm a campus building, injuring a university administrator and a security guard (AFMI 832). A physical altercation then broke out between private security guards and student protesters. At least one guard opened fire, killing student Mlungisi Madonsela. This and subsequent protests in South Africa have been marked by violent clashes between security guards and students, including guards firing tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades, while students have overturned vehicles, thrown stones and bricks at security forces, and damaged campus property (AFMI 835, 848, 950, 954, and 960).

In Morocco, on April 24, a group of students carrying knives reportedly attacked the president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Ahmed Raissouni, while he was giving a lecture at Abdelmalek Essaadi University (AFMI 904). Raissouni was invited to speak at an event titled “Moroccan choices in religiosity and doctrine” by a group of students called the Student Renewal. Roughly twenty-three minutes into his lecture, students attacked Raissouni, forcing him to flee and injuring a few members of the Student Renewal.

In Algeria, on May 7, a group of students at the University of Tizi Ouzou interrupted a campus event, attacked some of the event attendees, and threw a tear gas canister into the auditorium where the event was taking place (AFMI 912). Students had organized an event commemorating the thirty-ninth anniversary of the Berber Spring, a series of peaceful protests supporting Berber linguistic and cultural rights in Algeria in 1980. The organizers had invited prominent Berber activists Mouloud Lounaouci and Arezki Kecili to discuss the Berber Spring and ongoing nationwide pro-democracy protests that started in February 2019. When the group of students violently interrupted the event, the speakers fled the auditorium and the event was canceled.

And in Australia, on July 24, violent clashes broke out between opposing groups of students during a protest at the University of Queensland (AFMI 955). A group of students, including many Hong Kong international students, organized the protest to raise concern over human rights abuses against minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and a controversial extradition bill introduced by the Hong Kong government in February 2019. A large group of counter-protesters, which reportedly included many students from mainland China, confronted them, yelled insults, destroyed students’ signs, and held speakers playing the Chinese national anthem. Physical altercations broke out between students from opposing sides, with several students reportedly punched and shoved.


SAR condemns violent and coercive attacks against students, from whatever source. SAR urges governments and higher education leaders to ensure that all security officials, both state and private, exercise restraint and respond to student expression and protest activities in an appropriate and proportional manner, consistent with recognized international human rights standards. State authorities must further recognize and ensure appropriate protections for nonviolent student expression—especially when on a campus or in an academic setting. SAR also calls on higher education leaders to refrain from taking disciplinary actions against students in retaliation for or to restrict nonviolent student expression, inquiry, assembly, or association.

SAR calls on students engaged in expressive activity, on or off campus, to do so consistent with higher education values and human rights principles. This includes abstaining from violent, destructive or coercive acts. Members of higher education communities and civil society should commit to respecting the campus as a safe, free space, where ideas can be expressed and debated without fear of physical harm or undue restriction.

(Table of Contents)

Sudan’s Crackdown on Students and Scholars

Starting on December 19, 2018, Sudanese students and academics joined lawyers, doctors, activists, and others in launching a nationwide protest movement decrying food shortages and dire economic conditions, and demanding the resignation of then-President Omar al-Bashir. Government officials and security forces reacted aggressively, shuttering universities and using force to quash the protests.

Authorities used violent tactics during peaceful demonstrations and detained hundreds of protesters, including many students and scholars, for their alleged participation in the movement. By January 7, 2019, Sudan’s interior minister reported that more than 816 civilians had been arrested,[42] including members of the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA)—a group of independent professional unions, including academics, doctors, and lawyers, which organized many of the protests—and many female scholars and students, who also played a prominent role.[43] Many of the detainees were held incommunicado. On July 18, the Sudan Doctors Central Committee reported at least 246 civilian fatalities, with most attributed to security forces’ use of live ammunition, and at least 1,353 injured.[44]

Crackdown on Protest Activities

State efforts to deter student and faculty protest activities began almost immediately. On December 22, 2018, the Sudanese government ordered the indefinite suspension of activities at higher education institutions throughout the country (AFMI 804). Students were ordered to vacate dormitories, leaving hundreds displaced. Nearly eight months later, on September 11, 2019, the Minister of Higher Education announced that universities would re-open on October 1. As of early October, however, some universities had not yet resumed activities due to security concerns.[45]

On December 23, authorities raided a house rented by several members of the Darfuri Students’ Association at the University of Sinnar and arrested at least thirty students (AFMI 805). Authorities claimed the house was the base of a “rebel cell,” and that the students had received training from the Israeli secret service. The arrested students were taken to an undisclosed location and forced to make false confessions. In a video, the students “confessed” their affiliation with an armed Darfuri movement and to inciting violence. Human rights groups report that the students were subjected to torture while in custody.

On January 1, 2019, authorities detained Al-Neelain University philosophy professor and SPA leader Hisham el-Nour for his alleged connections to the protest movement (AFMI 811). El-Nour was visiting an imprisoned family member at the time he was detained. He has since been released.

Days later, on January 6, security forces blocked a group of professors from leaving the University of Khartoum (UofK) campus to join a protest (AFMI 814). Roughly one hundred professors fled the security forces and ducked into a campus building, where authorities prevented them from leaving for three hours. Eight professors were arrested and held in custody until later that day.

In a similar incident, on February 12, security forces arrested fourteen professors from various universities while they were on their way to participate in a sit-in at the UofK (AFMI 841).

On February 19, authorities used electric shock batons and detained UofK student-activist Wefag Gorashi and her sister Wafaa Gorashi in retaliation for their participation in the protests (AFMI 849). Wefag, a leader of several youth groups and a member of the UofK Student Committee, and Wafaa had actively participated in the protest movement and were in a store when authorities confronted them. After being held for several hours, authorities released Wafaa. Authorities later issued an arrest warrant for Wefag and detained her incommunicado. She has since been released.

On February 21, authorities arrested UofK professor and renowned geneticist Muntaser Ibrahim (AFMI 852). Months prior, Ibrahim and university colleagues jointly drafted a “Charter of Freedom and Change,” which reportedly lays out plans for an interim government. On February 13, Ibrahim and other signatories to the charter met to garner more supporters for it. A week later, authorities arrested Ibrahim without charge while he was at a mosque. He has since been released.

State of Emergency

On February 22, al-Bashir declared a year-long state of emergency, banning all unauthorized public demonstrations. Two days later, authorities stormed the University of Medical Sciences and Technology to quash a student protest (AFMI 853). Roughly one thousand students were peacefully demonstrating on campus when officers fired tear gas and used other violent force that left several students injured.

On March 7, security forces beat and used tear gas against students holding a vigil at the National University in Khartoum (AFMI 863). The students, in coordination with SPA, held the vigil to honor women detained throughout the protests. Several students were detained at the vigil.

On April 3, authorities raided the University of Dongola and detained five students for their participation in a strike on March 31 (AFMI 890). Students had refused to recommence their studies following protests over the “dire” situation of education at the university.

Post al-Bashir Sudan

On April 11, 2019, the Sudanese military ousted President al-Bashir and established a Transitional Military Council (TMC) to oversee the government. Following the military takeover, authorities released hundreds of detained protesters and activists, including many of the aforementioned scholars and students.[46]

While many celebrated al-Bashir’s removal from office and the release of political prisoners, tensions over the TMC led to protests demanding a civilian-led government. State security forces, including the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary force that grew out of the Janjaweed militia, violently cracked down on these protests. Reports indicate that security forces, including RSF, employed live ammunition against protesters and engaged in rampant sexual and gender-based violence intended to punish and deter women from participating in the protests.[47]

On June 3, paramilitary forces, including the RSF, violently attacked protesters participating in a peaceful sit-in organized by SPA near the campus of UofK. One hundred people were reportedly killed, many more injured, and at least seventy protesters were reportedly raped. The violence marked the deadliest attack against the protesters since the TMC took power.[48]

In response to the violence, the UofK Teaching Staff Initiative together with other associations, including SPA, launched a civil disobedience campaign, which they vowed would continue until the TMC transfers power to a civilian-led government.

Days later, on June 9, RSF raided the UofK, which had been closed since December 22, destroying and looting professors’ offices and burning the university hospital (AFMI 934). RSF killed four protesters at the barricades of the university and eventually took control of UofK, with forces stationed inside and around the campus. Over a month later, UofK students rejected the university’s decision to reopen, demanding the withdrawal of state and security forces and an investigation into the destruction of campus property.[49]

On June 27, RSF members used violent force against East Nile University College students participating in a peaceful protest in Khartoum (AFMI 943). RSF troops surrounded the college campus, fired tear gas, beat students, searched their belongings, and detained a number of them. The number of students detained and their location have not been made public.

On July 5, following national protests, international diplomacy efforts, and a series of negotiations, it was reported that the TMC and civilian leaders agreed to a power-sharing deal until elections are held. The peace deal was signed on August 17 and days later, on August 21, Abdalla Hamdok, the former deputy executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, was sworn in as prime minister of the interim government.[50]


The actions by Sudanese authorities and paramilitary forces—including the suspension of university activities, seizure and destruction of campus property, the use of force, gender-based violence, and imprisonment against scholars and students—have had a disastrous effect on their immediate victims and undermine the right to education, academic freedom, and institutional autonomy. Moreover, should these actions continue and responsible authorities fail to exercise restraint, they risk tremendous damage to Sudan’s higher education sector and to the future of democratic society in Sudan.

To ensure a more peaceful and sustainable transition of power in Sudan, state authorities, higher education leaders, and civil society must commit to protecting higher education communities as safe spaces for thought and inquiry. In particular, SAR urges government and military authorities in Sudan to uphold international legal obligations to respect the right to peaceful expression, assembly, and associations by refraining from the use of force, wrongful detentions and prosecutions, and other coercive actions aimed at restricting or retaliating against the exercise of such rights. SAR further urges Sudanese authorities to secure the release of scholars, students, and others wrongfully detained for peaceful expression or associations, and pending their release, to ensure their well-being, due process rights, and access to medical care and legal counsel.

[42]             Human Rights Watch, “Sudan: Hundreds of Protesters Arrested,” January 18, 2019,
[43]             Nima Elbagir, Sheena McKenzie, Abdulgader Bashir, Salah Nasir, and Salma Abdalaziz, “They tried to use rape to silence women protesters. It didn’t work,” CNN,
[44]             “More than 240 people killed in Sudan uprising,” July 20, 2019, DABANGA,
[45]             Tarek Abd El-Galil, “Sudan’s Academic Year Begins—But Only for a Few Universities,” Al-Fanar Media, October 8, 2019,
[46]             Declan Butler, “Prominent Sudanese geneticist freed from prison as dictator ousted,” Nature, April 17, 2019,
[47]             “Who are Sudan’s RSF and their commander Hemeti?,” Al Jazeera, June 5, 2019,
[48]             Human Rights Watch, “Sudan: End Network Shutdown Immediately,” June 12, 2019,
[49]             “Sixth university closes in Sudan,” July 26, 2019, DABANGA,
[50]             Darryl Coote, “Sudan’s new prime minister, sovereign council sworn in,” August 22, 2019, United Press International,
(Table of Contents)

Threats to Academic Freedom in China

Over the past year, SAR has reported a spike in reported attacks on scholars and students in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) aimed at eliminating dissent and restricting the flow of ideas.

Scholars have been arrested, prosecuted, and targeted with disciplinary measures, including dismissal, for their research, teaching, and online expression. A resurgence of student activism, not seen on the mainland since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, has been met with swift punishment by police, with a growing number of students detained and some disappeared. Meanwhile, authorities continue the mass detention of members of China’s ethnic minority communities, including many scholars and students, at so-called “re-education” camps scattered throughout the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

While restrictions on academic freedom and related rights in the PRC are not new—a recent report by SAR documents these issues over the past decade[51]—the sudden spike in incidents and the consequences they carry for the country’s increasingly global higher education sector heighten long-standing concerns and warrant a closer review.

Imprisonment and Prosecutions

PRC authorities have detained and prosecuted a growing number of university professors and students, often in connection with their online activity as well as their ethnic and religious identities. Authorities have brought national security-related charges against scholars and students, while in other cases, they have detained members of the higher education community without charge.

On January 23, 2019, Chinese authorities reportedly detained Yang Hengjun, a prominent writer and former Chinese official, in apparent retaliation for his writings criticizing the Chinese government (AFMI 826). Since 2017, Yang, now an Australian citizen, has resided in New York, where he is a visiting scholar at Columbia University. On January 18, authorities at an airport in Guangzhou prevented Yang from boarding his connecting flight to Shanghai with his family. Four days later, after suspicions rose that Yang had disappeared, Chinese officials informed the Australian embassy in Beijing that they had detained him. The next day, China’s foreign ministry announced that Yang had been detained for “engaging in criminal activities that endanger China’s national security,” without specifying Yang’s conduct. By August 27, seven months since his arrest, it was reported that authorities formally arrested and charged Yang with “espionage.” Sources indicate that Yang is being held under harsh conditions, including reports that he has been shackled during interrogations. If convicted, Yang could face more than ten years imprisonment; however, some reports suggest that he may face the death penalty.[52] As of this report, Yang has met with Australian consular officials, but he has not been given access to legal counsel.

In early April 2019, authorities from the Tibet Education Bureau (TEB) reportedly detained Northwest Minzu University graduate student Sonam Lhundrub in apparent retaliation for an essay he wrote for his civil service exam (AFMI 887). Sonam reportedly described the decline in government career opportunities for Tibetans in Tibetan regions of China. Shortly after he circulated a copy of his essay on social media, TEB officials reportedly took Sonam out of class and into their custody. One source indicated that authorities began to question Sonam’s classmates following his detention. As of this report, there are no public reports regarding Sonam’s status.

On April 18, 2019, police raided the home of scholar and human rights activist Guo Quan and detained him in retaliation for his social media expression (AFMI 900). Guo reportedly posted calls for the Chinese government to publicly disclose information about a March 2019 chemical explosion in Xiangshui that left over seventy people dead. Guo, a former associate professor at Nanjing Normal University, had previously served a ten-year sentence on a charge of “subversion of state power” in connection with his pro-democracy activism. He had been released in November 2018; however, authorities ordered that Guo be “deprived of political rights” for up to three years as part of his sentencing. Guo’s recent detention was reportedly ordered to be for ten days, but there is no public evidence that he has been released as of this report.

On June 4, 2019, authorities detained and interrogated Yang Shaozheng, a former economics professor at Guizhou University, in connection to social media posts regarding the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre (AFMI 930). Guizhou University had fired Yang in August 2018 in response to his criticism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in academic writings and online.[53] On the night of June 3, Yang described in a post to popular social media platform WeChat the casualties of the Chinese military’s lethal crackdown on students and civilians who led pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in May and June 1989.[54] According to Yang, the morning after posting to WeChat, police located him and took him into custody at a precinct in Guizhou on accusations of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.” Officers allegedly shackled Yang to a chair, interrogated him for eight hours, and attempted to force Yang to provide a DNA sample. When authorities later attempted to search his home, Yang, who had accompanied the officers, managed to escape. As of this report, Yang’s whereabouts are unknown.

Student Expression Under Attack

Over the past year, Chinese police and other security forces appear to have increased their efforts to detain student members of Marxist and labor groups at some of China’s most elite universities.

On November 1, 2018, police officers and unidentified individuals reportedly assaulted two student members of a Marxist group at Nanjing University (NJU) during a nonviolent protest (AFMI 770). The protest, organized by students Yang Kai and Zhu Shunqing and reportedly attended by at least one hundred students, was held to denounce the university’s refusal to recognize their Marxist student society. Sources indicate that during the protest unidentified men apprehended and dragged Yang to the ground. Police then detained Yang and held him in their custody for at least four hours. A day after the protest, Zhu’s relatives reportedly took him from NJU’s campus by force in retaliation for his participation in the protest.

On November 8, police detained two students from Renmin and Peking Universities who were participating in a peaceful protest outside an Apple store in Beijing (AFMI 773). A group of ten students from Renmin and Peking universities stood outside the store holding signs and taking photos of themselves protesting Apple’s alleged use of student interns as workers in their suppliers’ factories. Police on the scene told the students that they were disturbing the peace and asked the students to show their IDs. Police reportedly detained two of the students who allegedly refused to comply with their request.

The next day, on November 9, Chinese authorities began carrying out a series of raids targeting members of the Jasic Workers Support Group (JWSG), a student-led initiative committed to improving the conditions of factory workers (AFMI 774). Officers searching the campuses of Nanjing, Peking, and Renmin universities detained at least nine JWSG members who had recently graduated from their respective universities. Student witnesses reported seeing officers using violent force to apprehend Zhang Shengye, a Peking University alumnus, before forcing him into an unmarked car. As of this report, only one student, Wu Jiawei, is confirmed to have been released.

On December 26, authorities detained Qiu Zhanxuan, a student activist from Peking University and head of the university’s Marxist Society (AFMI 807). Qiu and the society had organized a memorial for the 125th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s birthday, an event that the university administration allegedly warned Qiu to not hold. On the day of the event, police intercepted Qiu, forced him into a car parked near the gate of PKU’s campus, and released him the following day with a warning.

Two days after Qiu’s detention, security guards at Peking University used violent force to restrict students from protesting an order by the university to effectively dissolve and restructure the student Marxist Society, including by removing Qiu as the group’s head (AFMI 809). The order was apparently in response to the aforementioned activities led by Qiu, which the university alleged violated campus regulations (AFMI 808). Sources indicate that roughly a dozen students gathered on campus, held placards, and locked arms in protest of the order. Security guards arrived shortly thereafter to disperse the students, forcing some of them into a campus building, pushing others to the ground, and detaining several more.

On January 21, 2019, authorities detained seven Marxist activists from Peking and Renmin universities for reporting on tactics by the police that were apparently intended to restrict student activism (AFMI 825). Specifically, the students reported over social media and to the press that police forced students to watch videos of prominent detained student-activists allegedly confessing to “spread[ing] false information and violat[ing] the law,” and denouncing their past actions. Shortly after the students’ accounts were circulated, police conducted house-to-house searches and detained seven students.

Nearly three months later, on April 29 and 30, it was reported that authorities detained six students from Peking University in apparent connection to their Marxist activities. The students, who include Qiu Zhanxuan, have frequently participated in solidarity actions and demonstrations as part of the Marxist Society at Peking University. Sources indicate that five of the students went missing after they reported being followed by men who appeared to be plainclothes police officers (AFMI 910). A sixth student, Shen Yuxuan told a friend over the phone that she was being harassed by police officers and security guards (AFMI 908). When Shen went to the bathroom to hide, several police officers broke in and took her into custody before turning off her phone. As of this report, information regarding the whereabouts of Shen and the five other students is unavailable.

“Re-education” Camps in Xinjiang

State authorities in the PRC continue the mass detention of scholars and students of the Uyghur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz ethnic minority communities, apparently on the basis of their ethnic and religious identity, academic activity, or views and ideas.

Authorities are reportedly holding detainees at so-called “re-education” camps throughout the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Reports indicate that some detainees have been forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, in contravention of their Muslim beliefs, and to attend indoctrination sessions.

Restrictions on access to information in the XUAR and other sensitive regions of China have made it difficult to investigate and report on individual minority scholars and students detained at the “re-education” camps and other facilities. Accounts of the following imprisoned scholars underscore the severity of this crisis.

In September 2018, reports surfaced that authorities had issued a two-year suspended death sentence to Halmurat Ghopur, a scholar of medicine and a former president of Xinjiang Medical University Hospital, “for exhibiting ‘separatist tendencies’” (AFMI 744). Police detained Ghopur at his office at the Xinjiang Food and Drug Administration in November 2017, allegedly as part of an investigation into alleged “acts against the state.” While authorities have not disclosed the evidentiary basis of Ghopur’s detention or sentencing, an anonymous source from the Xinjiang Association of Literature and Art suggested that authorities alleged Ghopur “used his position as a lecturer to carry out anti-government propaganda.” As of this report, there is no public information regarding Ghopur’s status or whereabouts.

Within weeks, in October 2018, news broke that authorities had also sentenced to death renowned geographer and former Xinjiang University (XJU) president Tashpolat Tiyip on a charge of “separatism” (AFMI 748). In March 2017, XJU removed Tiyip from his position as president without explanation, after which Tiyip disappeared from public view. At least two sources report that authorities arrested Tiyip at a Beijing airport in May 2017. Authorities have not publicly disclosed the evidentiary basis of the separatism charge on which he has been convicted. One source, however, has suggested that authorities accused Tiyip of being a “two-faced official,” a term ascribed to CCP members who are suspected of supporting separatist efforts in China’s minority regions. In September 2017, authorities allegedly sentenced Tiyip to death with a two-year reprieve, after which they may carry out the execution or reduce the sentence. No further information regarding Tiyip’s status or a decision by authorities to carry out his sentence is available as of this writing.

In late November 2018, authorities arrested Askar Yunus, a prominent historian and member of the Kyrgyz ethnic community, on undisclosed charges (AFMI 791). Yunus, a historian at the Academy of Social Sciences of Xinjiang, has published extensively on the Kyrgyz “golden era” and Kyrgyz-Chinese relations, and is a member of the Chinese Intellectual Foreign Affiliation Society and the Xinjiang History Association. Few details of Yunus’s arrest are available; however, sources indicate that he was arrested at his home in Urumqi. Academy personnel have confirmed his arrest, but have been unable or unwilling to disclose further details.

And in June 2019, it was reported that Nurmuhammad Tohti, a Uyghur scholar of mathematics and a renowned writer, had died after being detained at one of the camps (AFMI 935). Few details about Tohti’s detention and death are available. One source has indicated that Tohti was initially detained by authorities in late March and taken to a “re-education camp.” There is no public information available suggesting that he had been charged with a crime. Family members have reported that Tohti suffered from heart conditions and diabetes. One source has alleged that Tohti suffered a heart attack shortly after being taken to the camp, and that camp authorities neglected to provide him with proper medical treatment.

While a comprehensive accounting of scholars and students detained at “re-education” camps and other facilities is not available, reports by the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) and others suggest that a staggering number of university professors, students, and other intellectuals have been imprisoned at the so-called “re-education camps” or are otherwise being held against their will.[55]

In August 2019, in the midst of mounting global criticism, China’s State Council Information Office published a white paper titled, “Vocational Education and Training in Xinjiang.”[56] The paper is apparently intended to counter concerns from the human rights community about the camps. The authors assert that “trainees” could leave the camps, “enjoy the freedom of correspondence,” and were gaining employable skills. They further claim, without providing evidence, that most trainees had graduated, but have not indicated how many individuals left or remain in the camps.

Loss of Position

Universities, at the apparent direction of the CCP, have taken a range of actions to punish and silence faculty for views expressed on and off campus.

On September 1, 2018, Zhou Yun-Zhong, an assistant professor of history at Xiamen University, was dismissed from his position in retaliation for comments he posted on the micro-blogging site Weibo on July 2, 2018 (AFMI 723). Under the pseudonym “Donghai Dao Zi,” Zhou expressed views critical of Chinese society, claiming that China was an “inferior nation,” and belittling China’s historical achievements. Xiamen University announced Zhou’s dismissal on its website, stating that he was fired for “distorting Chinese historical reality, harming the image of the Party and the country, hurting the feelings of the Chinese people, crossing the red line of teachers’ ethics and work style, and exerting a bad influence on society.”

In a similar incident, on September 22, Hunan City University expelled civil engineering student Wang Dong, in apparent retaliation for his “unpatriotic” social media activity (AFMI 740). In posts published to Weibo, Wang allegedly criticized the CCP and China’s mandatory military training for high school and college students. One post read, “What’s the use of military training? The government keeps brainwashing me even into university.” Several students complained to the university administration about the post, describing his remarks as “insulting.”

On October 12, it was reported that Zhao Si-yun, the Deputy Head of the School of Literature of Zhejiang University of Media and Communication, was disciplined for making remarks criticizing China’s education system during a freshman welcoming ceremony (AFMI 757). In his welcome speech titled, “The Public Intellectual is a Scarce Resource,” Zhao lamented that China’s school system had failed to nurture students’ creativity, innovation, and concern for society. He also spoke of the need for students to have independent thought, and to embrace the concept of “the public intellectual.” Zhou posted his speech to social media, which was then picked up by a local newspaper. Within weeks, the university’s Communist Party Committee issued a “severe internal Party warning” to Zhao for his “inappropriate choice of words” in the welcome speech, as well as in other past social media Zhao posted. The committee described his comments as “erroneous opinions and speech, causing negative influence” and announced that Zhao’s speech would be investigated for “violations of political discipline.”

On March 20, 2019, Chongqing Normal University (CNU) reportedly demoted associate professor Tang Yun and revoked his teaching credentials, apparently in retaliation for alleged, unspecified comments he made during a course on early twentieth century revolutionary writer Lu Xun (AFMI 873). Students allegedly reported Tang’s comments. CNU officials did not publicly comment on the decision; however, a university directive described Tang’s comments as “injurious to the country’s reputation” and accused Tang of being “a bad influence.” On May 20, it was reported that CNU transferred Tang to work at the university’s library. Tang, who has worked at CNU for thirty-three years, was made associate professor in 1997.

Within a week of Tang’s demotion, on March 25, Tsinghua University (THU) suspended constitutional law professor Xu Zhangrun and placed him under investigation for publishing essays critical of the Party (AFMI 881). In a July 2018 essay, Xu warned of deepening government repression in China and the end of presidential term limits. Xu’s essay attracted considerable attention and he continued to write articles criticizing CCP leadership, including the current President Xi Jinping. On March 25, 2019, THU officials ordered Xu to stop teaching and researching, indicating that his pay would be cut, and informing him that a university “work team” would investigate him and the essays he had published since July 2018. Xu also appears to have been put under a travel ban.

Travel Restrictions

PRC authorities have prevented scholars from traveling in and out of China to engage in academic activity.

On November 1, 2018, Chinese authorities reportedly prevented two scholars, Sheng Hong and Jiang Hao, from leaving the country to attend an academic seminar at Harvard University, in the United States, purportedly on national security grounds (AFMI 769). Sheng, executive director of the Unirule Institute of Economics, and Jiang, a researcher and Unirule’s acting deputy director, were at Beijing Capital International Airport en route to the seminar when authorities reportedly informed them that they would not be permitted to leave the country. Authorities told Sheng and Jiang that their attendance at the seminar represented a threat to national security, but apparently provided no further explanation. Authorities have used an array of tactics to restrict Unirule’s activities in recent years, including by shutting down its website, deleting social media accounts belonging to several of its members, and facilitating the closing of its offices in July 2018. By August 2019, Unirule announced that it would shut down its operations in response to an order by government authorities that revoked its business license (AFMI 964). The institute’s leadership intends to appeal the order.

On April 1, 2019, Chinese authorities blocked human rights lawyer Chen Jiangang from traveling to the US to attend an academic fellowship program sponsored by the US Department of State (AFMI 888). Chen was to study law and human rights under a fellowship program for mid-career professionals from countries “undergoing development or political transition” who have demonstrated leadership and “dedication to public service.” In March 2019, Jiangang allegedly contacted Chinese authorities to ask whether he would be allowed to leave the country to attend the fellowship program. Authorities allegedly informed Chen that he was banned from travel because of his defense of Xie Yang, another rights lawyer, in 2015 and due to the fellowship program’s connection to the US government. On April 1, Chen attempted to board a flight to Los Angeles despite the officials’ order, but was denied exit by customs officials at Beijing Capital International Airport.

Around this same time, Chinese and US-based news outlets began reporting on an apparent “visa war” developing between the two countries. Reports indicate that the US government denied visas to a number of Chinese students and scholars based on allegations of scientific and economic espionage and intellectual property theft. The visa denials have reportedly disrupted scholarly exchanges and Chinese students’ studies in the US.

China has used similar measures to bar US-based scholars from traveling to China. On April 17, for example, Chinese authorities reportedly declined to respond to a visa application by Michael Pillsbury, a China expert at the Hudson Institute and an informal adviser to US President Donald Trump, who was invited to participate in a conference in Beijing hosted by the Center for China and Globalization. While consular officials neither approved or rejected his visa application, their lack of a response barred Pillsbury from participating in the conference. According to an Axios report, Pillsbury claims that Chinese authorities declined to issue a visa to Wendy Cutler, another China expert and a member of former president Barack Obama’s administration, who was also expecting to attend the same conference.[57]

States have a right to control their borders and take reasonable steps to ensure national security and prevent intellectual property theft. However, states also have an obligation to refrain from using travel restrictions to constrain or retaliate against nonviolent academic conduct or expression. Such restrictions may violate national and international human rights standards, and limit the free flow of ideas needed for strong and healthy higher education communities and international cooperation.


State-led efforts to constrain and punish ideas and questions run contrary to efforts to establish quality higher education communities that drive scientific, cultural, economic, and social progress. Such attacks and restrictions on academic activity and the peaceful exchange of ideas, by the Chinese government or any state, undermine progress and curtail national and international academic opportunities.

SAR urges Chinese state authorities to publicly affirm their commitment to academic freedom and human rights. Chinese state authorities must secure the immediate release of scholars and students wrongfully imprisoned in connection to their academic activity, opinions, associations, or ethnic or religious identity, and, pending this, disclose the location of all detainees and uphold national and international legal obligations related to due process and the humane treatment of prisoners. SAR further calls on Chinese state authorities to refrain from wrongful imprisonments and prosecutions, “re-education” efforts, travel restrictions, pressures on universities to carry out wrongful disciplinary measures, and other actions that restrict academic freedom and its constituent freedoms of expression, opinion, thought, association, and travel.

SAR calls on governments, higher education communities, and civil society outside China to urge Chinese authorities to swiftly take the above actions and to ensure that international standards of academic freedom and human rights are respected in their agreements and joint activities with Chinese academic and government partners.

[51]             Obstacles to Excellence: Academic Freedom & China’s Quest for World-Class Universities (2019), looks at pressures on academic freedom in China and extraterritorially, where the Chinese Party-state has had an influence. The report is available at:
[52]             Ben Doherty, “Yang Hengjun: Scott Morrison says China’s spy claims ‘absolutely untrue’,” The Guardian, August 28, 2019,
[53]             See
[54]             It bears mentioning that the Chinese government has censored official historical memory and discussions of the Tiananmen Square protests, including in education settings and by the media, and maintains close surveillance of academics, students, human rights activists, and dissidents around anniversaries of the June 4 massacre.
[55]             According to a March 2019 report by UHRP, at least 386 Uyghur intellectuals,  including 101 students and 285 scholars, artists, and journalists, were reported detained and disappeared since early 2017. See UHRP’s report, Detained and Disappeared: Intellectuals Under Assault in the Uyghur Homeland, at
[56]             State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, “Vocational Education and Training in Xinjiang,” August 2019, available at
[57]             Jonathan Swan and Dave Lawler, “Scoop: Chinese block visit of Trump confidant,” Axios, April 17. 2019,
(Table of Contents)

Travel Restrictions on Scholars and Students

The ability to travel across borders or within one’s own country is a crucial part of academic life, necessary for conducting field research, attending academic conferences, studying abroad, and, sometimes, simply attending class.

While states have the right to control entry into their territories, they must do so consistent with their obligations under domestic and international law, including human rights standards. Restrictions on travel which are not neutral in their application, but rather intended to limit particular academic content or conduct, or that of particular scholars or students, may violate the rights to academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of opinion, among others. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights speaks directly to this issue in providing that the right to freedom of expression “shall include [the] freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers…” (emphasis added).

Likewise, reasonable restrictions on travel within states imposed in response to genuine security concerns may be permissible, while measures imposed for the purpose of limiting or frustrating access to higher education, or which have a disproportionate impact on higher education, may violate the right to education. Finally, state decisions denying scholars the right to travel abroad limit academic expression and exchange, and thus restrict academic freedom.

During this reporting period, SAR reported eleven incidents of travel restrictions in seven countries, including denial of entry and exit connected to scholars’ and students’ academic content or conduct, as well as broad restrictions on travel affecting particular groups within the higher education community.[58]

Targeted Restrictions

In Zambia, on September 29, 2018, officials briefly detained and deported Patrick Lumumba, a Kenyan professor of law at Kabarak University, upon his arrival in Lusaka (AFMI 744). Lumumba had traveled to Zambia to deliver a lecture at Eden University on Chinese-African relations, a potentially sensitive topic given the government’s apparent reliance on Chinese loans. Zambian officials initially claimed the decision was made on “security grounds.” Zambia’s Minister of Information later indicated the government acted out of concern for Lumumba’s alleged history of “inflammatory” and “disrespectful” speech.

On October 2, Israeli authorities prevented Lara Alqasem, a US citizen of Palestinian descent, from entering the country to begin graduate studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Upon her arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, authorities questioned Alqasem for more than an hour before taking her into custody (AFMI 746). Authorities revoked her student visa as they suspected her of supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which encourages individuals, businesses, civil society institutions, and states to apply economic pressure on Israel to, among other things, withdraw from the Occupied Palestinian Territories, ensure the equality of Arab citizens of Israel, and secure the right of Palestinian refugees to return. According to Israeli law, support for the BDS movement would provide officials sufficient grounds to bar Alqasem from the country. On October 19, the Israeli Supreme Court accepted an appeal by Alqasem, released her from state custody, and allowed her to enter the country and begin her studies.

As described in the previous chapter, on November 2, Chinese state officials prevented Sheng Hong and Jiang Hao, both scholars from the Unirule Institute of Economics, from leaving the country and attending a conference at Harvard University, in the US (AFMI 769). Authorities at Beijing Capital Airport informed the men that they would not be permitted to leave the country as their presence at Harvard would pose a threat to national security. No further explanation for the decision was provided. (Additional examples of travel restrictions by Chinese authorities are described in the previous chapter.)

In Thailand, on February 9, 2019, authorities briefly held and interrogated Andrew Johnson, a Princeton University professor of anthropology, and informed him that his current and future travel to the country would be subjected to specific restrictions (AFMI 839). Johnson had traveled to Thailand to scout a location for a future study on water and urbanism. While attempting to leave the country, immigration officials ordered Johnson to disclose the names of all of his interlocutors during his stay as well as the locations he had visited. At the same time, authorities informed Johnson that his name had been included on a list of researchers to be monitored by the government. Authorities allegedly added Johnson to the list following his endorsement of a petition supporting five academics facing prosecution for their peaceful protest at the 2017 International Conference on Thai Studies in Chiang Mai. Johnson was released shortly after his interrogation.

In the United States, on April 11, authorities denied entry to Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights activist and leader of the BDS movement (AFMI 897). Barghouti was traveling to the US to speak at New York University, Harvard University, and Columbia University. While in transit at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, airline staff informed Barghouti that US immigration officials had asked the US Consulate in Tel Aviv to prevent him from traveling to the country despite his valid travel documents and visa.

And on August 23, US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents denied entry to Ismail Ajjawi, an incoming student at Harvard University, apparently for the content of his friends’ social media posts (AFMI 962). After arriving at Boston Logan International Airport, CBP agents questioned and searched the laptop and mobile phone of Ajjawi, a Palestinian from Lebanon. Agents ultimately denied Ajjawi entry despite his valid travel documents, claiming that his friends on social media had posted views “against the US.” Ajjawi was then returned to Lebanon. On September 2, after more than a week of media coverage and advocacy efforts by Harvard officials and others, Ajjawi was permitted entry to the US with a reissued student visa.

Broad Pressures on Academic Travel

States have taken broad administrative and legislative approaches to restrict scholars’ and students’ travel, including the use of emergency decrees, changes to visa policies, and opaque travel regulations.

In Turkey, authorities continue to bar thousands of higher education personnel and civil servants from travel. Following a coup attempt in July 2016, the Turkish government declared a state of emergency and began issuing a series of decrees that, among other things, restricted the international travel of thousands of academic personnel and other public servants accused of supporting Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim cleric who the government claims coordinated the coup attempt. University personnel named in the decrees were fired, barred from future civil service posts, and put under a travel ban; spouses of those individuals were also put under a travel ban. Although the government lifted the state of emergency in July 2018, courts have upheld travel bans for most of the academics, while others have been denied their passports without official explanation.[59] In 2017, three Academics for Peace signatories brought lawsuits against Turkey in the European Court of Human Rights over their revoked passports. The lawsuits remain pending as of this report.[60]

In the West Bank, Israeli authorities have repeatedly imposed restrictions on international scholars’ ability to enter or remain in the West Bank. In many cases this is despite their having taught at universities in the West Bank for years or even decades. Numerous scholars have had their visas denied by Israeli authorities outright, while others have reportedly been subjected to administrative burdens, including shifting visa documentation requirements, arbitrarily shortened visa periods, restrictions on their movement within the West Bank, demands for financial bonds of up to 80,000 NIS (roughly $22,000 USD), and a lack of transparency regarding the application of visa-related rules. The latter especially limits scholars’ ability to accept long-term employment at West Bank universities or to assess their ability to return to the West Bank after traveling abroad to attend a conference or conduct research. In July 2019, for example, Birzeit University (BZU) reported that seven international lecturers were forced to leave the country between 2017 and 2019 because of visa renewal denials and that Israeli authorities had denied entry to two international academics with BZU contracts in 2019.[61] BZU further stated that six international faculty members contracted for the 2018-2019 academic year lacked valid visas, five faculty members remained overseas with little indication that they would receive visas to return, and more than twelve departments and programs risked losing faculty members through visa-related challenges in the coming year.

In the United States, a Trump administration executive order restricting travel to the US from Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen remains in effect. Federal courts blocked an initial, broader version of the order issued in the first month of the Trump presidency in January 2017. The revised version was issued in September 2017 and upheld by the US Supreme Court in June 2018. Beyond its direct effects on scholars and students from countries affected by the ban, the order may decrease diversity among faculty and student bodies, limit opportunities for scholars and students in the US to learn from counterparts from the affected countries, and decrease the attractiveness of US higher education institutions as spaces of open and diverse intellectual and cultural exchange.

US authorities have also reportedly canceled or declined to issue visas for a number of Chinese scholars and policy experts apparently as part of a purported effort to protect intellectual property and guard against scientific espionage. As of April 2019, the New York Times reported that as many as thirty Chinese professors, heads of academic institutes, and experts who help explain government policies to US policy circles and government entities have seen their US visas canceled or placed on an indefinite “administrative review.”[62] Other media reports have suggested that hundreds of Chinese professors, researchers, and academics have had requests for short and long-term visas denied between April 2018 and April 2019.[63] In late August 2019, CBP officials reportedly detained and denied entry to nine Chinese students returning to Arizona State University to continue their studies; authorities have not detailed the basis for their denied entry.[64] These reports have followed public allegations by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that Chinese scholars, researchers, and students have engaged in large-scale intellectual property theft and scientific espionage. FBI and NIH officials have not publicly disclosed concrete evidence substantiating the threat.

At the same time, Chinese authorities have for years maintained tight restrictions on US and other foreign scholars’ travel to the country to conduct research or participate in academic discussions. Academics researching topics deemed to be sensitive by the Chinese government, such as conditions in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region or minority issues, have been denied visas and in some cases blacklisted from travel to China.[65]


Restrictions on travel for scholars, students, and staff—whether they involve interstate or intrastate travel, denial of an exit or entry visa, or government action that prevents movement by entire classes of higher education personnel—share a common trait: they limit and often penalize the international exchange of ideas.

SAR calls upon state and international authorities to adopt and respect policies that fully protect the right to academic travel, including the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers.”[66] State authorities should not deny scholars and students entry or exit visas, cancel their passports, force their return to their home countries or otherwise attempt to impede or interfere with academic expression or conduct.

[58]             SAR recognizes that the actual number of travel restrictions is likely much higher than what is reported here, as scholars and students are often inclined to refrain from publicly discussing their experiences and due to the challenges in proving a nexus to academic activity.
[59]             Stockholm Center for Freedom, “Turkish court rejects academic’s objection to travel ban,” March 11, 2019,
[60]             Together with the Human Rights Centre of Ghent University, SAR issued a joint third-party intervention on behalf of these academics. See Sofia Sideridou, “Human Rights Centre and SAR submit a joint third party intervention in cases concerning academic freedom,” Strasbourg Observers, March 21, 2019,
[61]             Brendan O’Malley, “Israel ‘blocks international academics’ in West Bank, Gaza,” University World News, July 11, 2019,
[62]             Jane Perlez, “F.B.I. Bars Some China Scholars From Visiting U.S. Over Spying Fears,” The New York Times, April 14, 2019,
[63]             Yojana Sharma, “Hundreds of Chinese Scholars Face US Visa Restrictions,” University World News, April 23, 2019,
[64]             Rachel Leingang, “9 Chinese ASU students detained at Los Angeles airport, denied admission to US,” Arizona Republic, August 30, 2019,
[65]             For more discussion of travel restrictions in China, see Scholars at Risk, Obstacles to Excellence: Academic Freedom and China’s Quest for World-Class Universities, at
[66]             See Article 19 in “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” December 19, 1966.
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Assault on Brazil’s Higher Education Space

Significant pressures on Brazilian higher education increased in the period leading up to and following the 2018 presidential election.[67] These included politically motivated, coercive actions on campus by police and others, as well as policy proposals that may significantly threaten university autonomy. In addition, public officials have suggested limiting funding for apparently disfavored academic disciplines, or for higher education in general, raising significant concern among scholars, students, and advocates.

Attacks on Brazilian Campuses

Beginning shortly before the October 28, 2018 runoff election between Jair Bolsonaro and Fernando Haddad, campuses in Brazil appear to have been targeted by heightened levels of political and ideological pressure, including physical attacks.[68]

For example, on October 10, 2018, a black female student from the University of Fortaleza (UNIFOR) reportedly began to suffer a pattern of harassment, including being told by an unidentified individual on campus that the university was no place for black people and that he and others would “cleanse the university” of “her people” once president-elect Jair Bolsonaro took office. She also received threats via WhatsApp from various phone numbers. On October 25, she was raped near the UNIFOR campus. The Brazilian Bar Association’s Human Rights Commission commented that the attack appeared to be politically motivated (AFMI 765).

On October 19, six unidentified individuals attacked a group of roughly fifteen students from the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO), apparently for distributing political flyers in support of Fernando Haddad at a public square just outside the campus. The attackers, who have not been publicly identified, shouted death threats, punched one of the students, attacked another student with an iron bar, and demanded that the students vacate the premises. Police, who arrived later, reportedly advised the students targeted in the attack not to press charges, indicating that doing so would make the students targets of future attacks (AFMI 761).

Beginning later that month, a series of violent and apparently politically motivated threats at several Brazilian campuses was reported. On October 31, at Federal University of Pará, student representatives received anonymous, written threats of plans to “exterminate” LGBTQ+ students, students of color, and student activists. The letter identified by name and directly threatened at least two elected student representatives.

On November 7, an anonymous letter posted at the Federal University of Pernambuco identified by name over twenty students and faculty that the author claimed would be banned from the university once then president-elect Jair Bolsonaro came to power; these included faculty known for their research in the areas of LGBTQ+ and gender studies as well as public policy related to policing and drug legalization.

And the following day, a letter was found at the State University of Pernambuco, charging certain academic disciplines with “indoctrination” and threatening that the university would be “purged of all communists” (AFMI 767).

Campus Raids

Also surrounding the run-off election, state authorities reportedly raided several universities throughout the country, questioned professors, confiscated materials, and ordered signs deemed political to be taken down from public spaces. The raids arose out of court orders issued under a Brazilian law prohibiting political advertising in public spaces. However, several of the materials in question did not endorse a particular candidate or party. In other cases, the actions by authorities appear to have been conducted without warrants, or based on unclear evidence. These cases (all described in AFMI 766) include the following.

At the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFF), a court order reportedly mandated that a student banner reading “Law UFF-Antifascist” be taken down, and flyers reading “Manifest in Defense of Democracy and Public Universities” be confiscated.

In Paraiba, police raided the office of a professors’ union at Campina Grande Federal University, confiscating “Manifest in Defense of Democracy and Public Universities” flyers, and seizing a hard drive from the union’s press office.

At the State University of Rio de Janeiro, a warrant ordered that banners honoring Marielle Franco, a city councilwoman who was murdered in early 2018, be taken down.

At Greater Dourados University, a court ordered the cancellation of a public lecture titled “Crushing Fascism” on the day it was scheduled to take place.

At the State University of Paraiba, men wearing Regional Election Authority uniforms—but who reportedly did not produce identification—entered a professor’s classroom claiming they had been informed she had been campaigning for a political candidate. They left after learning the professor was not engaged in partisan activities in the classroom.

At Pará State University, authorities reportedly conducted a similar classroom raid, based on allegations that a professor was campaigning in class.

In Minas Gerais State, a court ordered São João Del Rei Federal University to pull from its website a statement, signed by the dean’s office, promoting democratic principles and rejecting violence in the elections.

On October 28, Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court granted an injunction canceling police orders to raid university campuses and confiscate materials. Supreme Court Minister Cármen Lúcia stated that “the Federal Supreme Court, as guardian of the Federal Constitution, has always defended the autonomy and independence of Brazilian universities, as well as the free exercise of thinking, expression and peaceful demonstration.”

Nevertheless, actions with the potential to negatively impact higher education have continued in Brazil following President Bolsonaro’s election. These include, for example, an initiative led by Ana Caroline Campagnolo, an elected state representative, inviting students via Facebook to film their classes to catch “political-partisan or ideological” behavior from teachers, and the establishment of an anonymous phone line for students and members of the public to denounce “ideological professors and indoctrinators” at universities.[69] Despite the Federal Supreme Court’s defense of university autonomy and academic freedom, officials, including President Bolsonaro, have continued encouraging students to film teachers during class if they suspect them of pushing leftist ideas. “Teachers need to teach and not indoctrinate,” Bolsonaro tweeted in May 2019.[70] Bolsonaro’s son Carlos also retweeted: “Filming/recording in schools is an act of legitimate defense against ideological predators who are disguised as teachers.”[71]

Threats to Institutional Autonomy

A number of statements by federal government officials raise additional concerns. In an April 2019 newspaper interview, for example, Minister of Education Abraham Weintraub accused three universities—Federal University Fluminense, Federal University of Bahia, and the University of Brasilia—of “promoting disruptions” and “staging ridiculous events” instead of focusing on academic excellence, and suggested that their federal funding would be reduced.[72] Also in April 2019, Weintraub suggested that the government would withdraw resources from particular departments—namely philosophy and sociology[73]—which he alleged were “courses for people already very rich, from the elite,” in favor of investment “in colleges that generate revenues: nursing, veterinary, engineering, and medicine.”[74] Bolsonaro later indicated support for this position, writing on Twitter: “The role of the Government is to respect the taxpayer money, teaching young people to read, write, and do math and then a trade that generates income for the person and his family well-being in order to improve society.”[75]

Targeted reductions in funding have not been reported to date (although measures to cut or temporarily reduce university funding were imposed across-the-board).[76] Nevertheless, the suggestion that certain ideas, subject areas, or universities are disfavored and risk losing funding can impact university autonomy and chill academic expression.

An additional source of concern is a May 15, 2019, decree by the Bolsonaro administration that allows the executive branch to veto nominations for university authorities,[77] and vests the executive branch of government with the authority to appoint rectors, vice-rectors, deans, and other staff within federal universities. These officials were previously elected by public consultation within their academic communities.[78] Critics of the decree charge that it not only harms university autonomy, but allows for politicization of university appointments, insofar as it establishes a broad framework for investigating, with the assistance of the Brazilian Intelligence Agency, the background of candidates for office including federal university deans and directors.[79]


The above incidents raise significant concerns about a growing climate of antipathy toward higher education arising both within the recently-elected government, and among institutional actors supportive of the government.

SAR calls on state authorities to support long established standards of university autonomy and academic freedom. SAR calls on university leaders to adopt policies that advance these standards at an institutional level, promoting free, safe, and open debate on campus. Brazil’s judiciary, and Brazilian society generally should be mindful of these standards. SAR further calls on Brazilian leaders of all political affiliations to recognize the crucial importance of a free and independent university space, and to refrain from rhetoric that marginalizes or attacks individual institutions, disciplines, or higher education in general.

[67]             SAR gratefully acknowledges Catalina Arango, Emily Diomat, and Danna El-Arab, members of the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Ottawa’s Human Rights Research and Education Centre (HRREC), for drafting and research contributions to this chapter. To learn more about the HRREC, visit To learn more about SAR’s Academic Freedom Legal Clinics, visit
[68]             See “We deplore this attack on freedom of expression in Brazil’s universities,” The Guardian, November 1, 2018,; and “Universities All Over Brazil Suffer Police Raids and Electoral Justice Operations” Folha De S. Paulo, October 26, 2018
[69]             Rachael Pells, “Brazilian Academics Vow to Resist Threats to Freedom,” Times Higher Education (as republished in Inside Higher Ed), November 26, 2018, See also Julia Lindner, “Deputada aliada do Bolsonaro cria canal anônimo de denúncia contra professores,” O Estado de S.Paulo, October 29, 2018,,deputada-aliada-do-bolsonaro-cria-canal-anonimo-de-denuncia-contra-professores-universitarios,70002571720.
[70]             @jairbolsonaro (Twitter), April 28, 2019,
[71]             @escolasempartid (Twitter), April 28, 2019, See also Anna Jean Kaiser, “ Call for students to film ‘biased’ teachers brings Brazil’s culture wars to classroom,” The Guardian, May 3, 2019,
[72]             “MEC diz que cortará verba de universidade que promover ‘balbúrdia’,” O Estado de S. Paulo, April 30, 2019,,mec-diz-que-cortara-verba-de-universidade-que-promover-balburdia,992746.
[73]             Helena Borges, “Ministro dá dica para o Enem: ‘Questões ideológicas, muito polêmicas, não devem acontecer esse ano’,” O Globo, April 26, 2019,
[74]             Rafael Neves, “Associações de ciências humanas rebatem argumentos de Bolsonaro para cortar investimentos,” Congresso em Foco, April 26, 2019,
[75]             @jairbolsonaro (Twitter), April 26, 2019, See also Helena Borges, “Bolsonaro defende cortes em cursos de Humanas e diz que dinheiro do contribuinte deve ir para ‘leitura, escrita e fazer conta’,” O Globo, April 26, 2019,
[76]             Luiza Tenente and Patrícia Figueiredo, “Entenda o corte de verba das universidades federais e saiba como são os orçamentos das 10 maiores,” G1, May 15, 2019,
[77]             Felipe Cardoso, “Decreto presidencial fortalece Santos Cruz e permite que ministro avalie indicações para cargos na Educação,” Jornal Opção, May 16, 2019,
[78]             “Bolsonaro Strikes Back: Brazilian Universities to Lose Autonomy,” Telesur, May 17, 2019,
[79]             Luiz Calcagno, “Universidades federais que elegerão reitores neste ano temem intervenções,” Correio Braziliense, April 21, 2019,,750634/universidades-federais-que-elegerao-reitores-neste-ano-temem-intervenc.shtml.
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The data reflected in Free to Think 2019 presents a distressing phenomenon of attacks on higher education communities around the world, with notable pressures in India, Turkey, Sudan, China, and Brazil. Violent attacks on the university space; imprisonments and prosecutions; the use of force against students; terminations and expulsions; travel restrictions; threats to institutional autonomy; and other pressures shrink the space for higher education communities to develop and convey knowledge and serve society, especially on issues of critical importance to scientific advancements, public policy, and democratic debate. Recognizing these incidents—despite variations in target, type of attack, and location—as a single global phenomenon is a critical first step in devising solutions. The next step is to encourage a robust response at the international and state levels, from within higher education itself and from civil society and the public at large.


Scholars at Risk (SAR) urges states, higher education leaders, civil society, and the public at large in all countries to:

  • recognize publicly the problem of attacks on higher education, their negative consequences, and the responsibility of states to protect higher education communities within their territories against such attacks;
  • abstain from direct or indirect involvement in attacks of any type on higher education, including by undue external interference or compulsion, by criminal, legislative, or administrative actions, or by travel restrictions that punish or deter nonviolent academic conduct, expression or associations;
  • demand prompt, thorough, and transparent investigations of attacks on higher education communities, as well as all reasonable efforts to hold perpetrators accountable;
  • take all reasonable measures to ensure adequate security for all members of higher education communities;
  • review laws used to prosecute scholars and students, and amend or repeal them as necessary to ensure that scholars and students can exercise their rights to academic freedom and other constituent rights;
  • respect the right of students to engage in organized peaceful expression and refrain from violence or other inappropriate responses to such expression;
  • lift restrictions on the travel, movement, or residence of scholars, students, and other higher education personnel, and refrain from future restrictions that are based on nonviolent academic conduct, expression, or associations; and
  • contribute to efforts aimed at reinforcing principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy, including by reaffirming their commitment in public statements, policies, and practices to the principles that ideas are not crimes and that critical discourse is not disloyalty.


In India especially, SAR urges state authorities and higher education leaders to:

  • refrain from the use of force when responding to student and faculty expression on and off campus, including by ensuring that actions by security forces are proportional and do not interfere with peaceful expressive activities; and
  • refrain from detentions, prosecutions, and university disciplinary measures intended to retaliate against, restrict, or otherwise frustrate peaceful academic conduct, expression, or associations.


In Turkey especially, SAR urges state authorities and higher education leaders to:

  • suspend and reverse actions taken against Turkish higher education institutions and personnel, including wrongful arrests, terminations, suspensions, and restrictions on travel; and, barring this,
  • ensure an effective and transparent review for all higher education personnel who have been subject to suspension, termination, expulsion, or other professional retaliation in connection with the Peace Petition, investigations related to the 2016 coup attempt, or related events;
  • ensure due process, consistent with international human rights standards, for all professors, students, and other higher education personnel subject to civil or criminal actions; and
  • restore and strengthen institutional autonomy, including by returning to university faculty and higher education council officials their role in the rector appointment process.


In Sudan especially, SAR urges state authorities and higher education leaders to:

  • unconditionally release scholars, students, and others detained in connection with their peaceful expression and associations related to nationwide protest movements, and pending this, to disclose their location and ensure access to medical care, legal counsel, and family;
  • refrain from future use of violent force against and detentions of students and scholars relating to peaceful academic conduct, expression, or association; and
  • reopen higher education institutions that had been closed in connection with the protests and ensure the security of the same.


In China especially, SAR urges state authorities and higher education leaders to:

  • unconditionally release detained scholars and students, including those held in “re-education camps” and other facilities, and pending this, to disclose their location and ensure access to medical care, legal counsel, and family;
  • refrain from future detention of students and scholars relating to peaceful academic conduct, expression, or associations; and
  • refrain from politically-motivated disciplinary and surveillance measures against academic personnel and students.


In Brazil especially, SAR urges state authorities and higher education leaders to:

  • take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of scholars, students, staff, and other members of higher education communities, including by investigating incidents and holding perpetrators accountable; and
  • refrain from statements or actions, including policy proposals, that stigmatize higher education, scholars or students and otherwise erode conditions of security, academic freedom, or institutional autonomy within and among Brazilian higher education institutions.
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Appendix: Table of Incidents

The table found here includes at least 324 attacks arising from 247 verified incidents in 56 countries, as reported by Scholars at Risk’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project from September 1, 2018, to August 31, 2019. Note that the total number of attacks exceeds the total number of incidents reported because a single incident may involve more than one type of conduct. Figures cited only include independently verified incidents. Over this reporting period, the project evaluated more than 375 reported attacks in 59 countries. Incidents are listed below in reverse chronological order and are described by the country where the incident took place, the institution(s) implicated in the incident, and the type(s) of attack associated with the incident. For more detailed information on the below incidents, including links to sources cited in incident reports, please visit the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project website at

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Appendix: Methodology

The SAR Academic Freedom Monitoring Project aims to identify, assess, and track incidents involving one or more of six (6) types of conduct which may constitute violations of academic freedom and/or the human rights of members of higher education communities. The project consists of Scholars at Risk staff working in partnership with higher education professionals, researchers, students participating in SAR’s Academic Freedom Legal Clinics, and advocates around the world serving as monitors. Monitors may work within or external to the country or region being covered, following a detailed system developed by Scholars at Risk for identifying, reporting on, and analyzing incidents of attacks on higher education systems, institutions, or personnel. anonymity of monitors is maintained where warranted by personal security or other concerns.

The six types of conduct monitored include: (1) killings, violence, and disappearances; (2) wrongful imprisonment/detention; (3) wrongful prosecution; (4) wrongful dismissal/loss of position/expulsion from study; (5) restrictions on travel or movement; and (6) other. The “other” type acknowledges that it is not easy to anticipate all relevant types of attacks that the monitoring project might expose and leaves room for researchers to include significant incidents which do not fit squarely elsewhere. Over time, regular reports of similar kinds of conduct in the “other” type may justify adding an additional delimited type. “Other” types of attacks identified by the project may include military targeting, occupation or use of higher education facilities; forced university closures; and systematic discrimination in access to higher education. For three of the types—travel, dismissal/loss of position/expulsion, and prosecution—the project reports only on incidents bearing some nexus to academic activity or content, expression, or association. For the other three types—imprisonment; killings, violence, and disappearances; and other significant events—
the project requires only a nexus to members of higher education communities or higher education institutions and infrastructures. For example, the dismissal of a professor or student is included if there appears to be a nexus between the professor or student’s academic activity, expression, or the content of research, writing, teaching, or lecturing. The killing of a professor or student is included even if there is no specific link to academic speech, conduct or the content, if it satisfies the definition of “attack” and is therefore likely to contribute to insecurity or have a chilling effect on higher education, intentional or otherwise.

Monitors submit reports to Scholars at Risk on a rolling basis. Monitors are encouraged to focus on the defined types of attacks, but are also instructed to exercise an “inclusion preference,” reporting corroborated incidents which may be difficult to fit within the five defined types, but which raise significant concerns about the security and freedom of higher education communities. This allows the broadest collection of initial data, data that over time will help support analysis of scope and frequency. In all cases, Scholars at Risk staff provide a secondary level of review and work within the limits of available resources,and with individual monitors, to corroborate reported incidents and to evaluate when an incident rises to the level of reportable “attack” for project purposes. Sources typically include local, national, and international media outlets and, where possible, primary sources such as interviews with victims, witnesses, or bystanders, and court, government, or university documents. Incidents corroborated by sufficient reliable sources are deemed “verified” and published as warranting public attention, including via email digests, website, social media, and summary reports. Scholars at Risk welcomes submissions of additional corroborating, clarifying, or contradictory information which may be used to further research or otherwise improve data reported.

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