This past year saw war and a further upsurge in terrorism around the world that continues into 2004. For a while, as global attention focused on the war in Iraq, the small oppressions of individuals seemed to fade in importance. It became clear quickly enough, however, that there could be no cessation of vigilance even at times of great crisis. Fidel Castro, for one, took advantage of the distraction of the war to arrest scores of dissidents in his country; these individuals today remain imprisoned in miserable conditions, some of them seriously ill, with decades still facing them in prison.
And yet the war in Iraq, despite its cost in disruption and in human lives, has resulted in a potential opening of some societies in the Near and Middle East that have been closed to the Western community and whose people suffer under dictatorship. We are presented now with new opportunities for working in countries where academic freedom is not yet a reality–hardly even a dream. Our experiences this past year with cases in Egypt, Iran, Turkey, and Algeria show that there is indeed a possibility of making a real difference in the lives of our scientific colleagues in that part of the world.
We have also been confronted with an appalling rise in anti-Semitic incidents and the equally shocking social acceptability of anti-Semitic attitudes throughout the rest of the world. That America has been spared this plague is a great blessing; in addition, with the exception of the cases noted above, we have so far encountered few instances where scientists as such have been targeted. Yet the academic boycott of Israel continues, and is a matter of deep and continuing concern. On this front as on others, we have our work cut out for us.
In January 2003, Dr. Charles Li, an American citizen and medical doctor and an adherent of Falun Gong, was arrested and charged with sabotage. It is believed that governmental objection to his religious practice is what spurred his arrest, in grave violation of the principles of religious freedom enunciated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We wrote objecting to this human-rights violation and requesting that the government ensure that Dr. Li’s trial be conducted fairly and that he be permitted access to a lawyer. He remains in jail in Nanjing.
We initiated and researched a petition on behalf of 19 colleagues imprisoned on charges that appear to lack internationally-recognized legal merit. The following groups joined with us as co-sponsors: the New York Academy of Sciences Committee on the Human Rights of Scientists, the American Physical Society Committee on the International Freedom of Scientists, the American Chemical Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility. The petition garnered the signatures of 171 individual scientists, academics, and physicians. A similar version of the petition was sent out later, with an additional 850 signatures attached.
We protested the impending closing of the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot and the deportation of its staff to Burma. This clinic, located on the border, is run primarily by ethnic Karens, a persecuted group within Burma, and provides medical assistance to Burmese refugees fleeing from the harsh conditions there. Reportedly the closing of this clinic was ordered in hopes of appeasing the Burmese government. Last summer, the head of the clinic, Dr. Cynthia Maung, was awarded the First Annual Jonathan Mann Global Health and Human Rights Award.
Nguyen Dan Que, an endocrinologist and former Director of the Cho-Ray Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, was arrested in March 2003. Dr. Que had spent ten years in jail without a trial, beginning in 1978. In 1990 he was again arrested and spent more than eight years in solitary confinement, enduring harsh and physically debilitating conditions. We wrote at that time appealing on his behalf and then again when, even after his release in 1998, it was clear that Dr. Que and his family were being harassed by public security police. When he was arrested anew this past March, it was without any indication of the charges against him. On March 22 the arrest was made public in a small column in an official newspaper; according to the police, Dr. Que was caught sending documents containing material that “runs against the State.” It now appears that Dr. Que had e-mailed his brother in Virginia disparaging the Vietnamese government’s claim that it guarantees freedom of information and making other comments of a critical nature. We wrote on Dr. Que’s behalf, but there has been no sign of improvement in his situation.
The European boycott of Israeli academics remains quietly in effect. The most visible expression of this boycott occurred in 2003, when the Egyptian-born editor and owner of two academic journals, Mona Baker, demanded the resignation of two Israeli consulting editors. They refused and were summarily fired. We wrote then in vigorous protest. This past year, there has been further activity in this area. On September 18, 2003, Mona Baker and Lawrence Davidson published a new, comprehensive and very lengthy defense of the boycott in the online magazine CounterPunch.
And in a similar incident to that in 2003, pathology professor Andrew Wilkie of the University of Oxford wrote in an e-mail to an Israeli student applicant that he could not accept an Israeli in his lab, especially one “who had served in the Israeli army.” His stated reason was his opposition to Israeli government policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians. Disciplinary procedures by the University were commenced. While waiting to hear the verdict, we wrote to the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, Colin Lucas, urging him to treat the case with the utmost seriousness and to verify for the academic community that this kind of discrimination would not be tolerated. This past October, Professor Wilkie was suspended from his academic duties, without pay, for two months and ordered to undergo equal-opportunities training.
A humanitarian worker, Arjan Erkel, Head of Mission for Medecins Sans Frontieres, providing medical aid to refugees from nearby Chechnya, was abducted in the city of Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan, in 2003. In March 2003, the Interior Minister of Dagestan, Adilgerey Magomedtagirov, announced that Mr. Erkel was believed to be still alive, yet little information was released about potential suspects or possible motives for the kidnapping and little was being done to investigate the case. We wrote to urge that the authorities spare no effort to rescue Arjan Erkel and that they share what information they possessed with Mr. Erkel’s organization, Medecins Sans Frontieres. Still there has been no word, after more than 14 months, although in October 2003, during an official visit to Switzerland, Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Igor Ivanov confirmed that Mr. Erkel was believed to be alive.
We appealed on behalf of Dariush Zahedi, an Iranian-American lecturer in Political Science at UC Berkeley who traveled to Iran in June and was arrested while attending a meeting in Teheran. Initially cleared of the charges of espionage brought against him by the Ministry of Intelligence, he was then transferred to solitary confinement in a part of the Evin prison controlled by the judiciary. He was denied a lawyer, and no further information about his case was forthcoming until he was suddenly freed on $250,000 bail on Sunday, November 9, 2003.
In another case, Iranian professor of history Hashem Aghajari was sentenced to death for apostasy last August in connection with his condemnation of clerics who insist on being followed “blindly.” He appealed the verdict, and happily in February of this year the Supreme Court lifted his death sentence. But the case is far from over; the judge stated that the court will soon issue a new sentence.
Dr. Alp Ayan, a psychiatrist and member of the Izmir Center for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims, a part of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, has over the years been convicted several times for having “insulted the Ministry of Justice” under article 159 of the Turkish Penal Code. After his third hearing in connection with this apparently spurious charge, Dr. Ayan was charged yet again in April 2003 in connection with his peaceful participation in a protest meeting in February, in which he criticized both the harsh conditions of Turkish prisons and police brutality; this brought the further charge of having “insulted the Turkish Armed Forces.” We appealed to the Turkish authorities to dismiss the charges against Dr. Ayan, on the grounds that his actions were fully in accordance with his internationally-recognized human rights to assembly and expression. His trial is still in progress.
We appealed on behalf of the teachers Hayder Tamboor and Nasr Eldin Tamboor who, along with six others, were arrested this past August and were being held incommunicado. We received reports that Nasr Eldin Tamboor was hospitalized after a beating by security officers. It was alleged that these men supported the Sudan Liberation Army, but neither was charged with an offense. We wrote again in November with over 850 signatures on the letter.
We requested a fair and open retrial, based on valid criminal charges, for Salaheddine Sidhoum, 54, a medical doctor and human rights activist, who turned himself in to the police this past September 29. In 1997, Dr. Sidhoum had been convicted in absentia of “terrorism or subversion” and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. He spent the years since his conviction in hiding, working to document such human rights abuses as torture and summary executions. Held in Serkadji prison in Algiers in an isolation cell without bed or mattress, he conducted a hunger strike in protest at the physical conditions and in order to receive the status of political prisoner. In his October retrial, Dr. Sidhoum was acquitted on all charges.
We wrote regarding the difficult situation facing students and faculty at the universities of Birzeit and al-Quds, especially the reports that a fence may be built across the campus of Al-Quds University in Abu Dis that may interfere with the functioning of that university’s activities. On October 8, IDF forces closed the Surda checkpoint on the Ramallah-Birzeit road even to pedestrians, preventing students and faculty who live in Ramallah from reaching Birzeit University and thus effectively closing the campus.
We inquired about a report of an incident in which IDF soldiers allegedly shot at unarmed and peaceful students at Birzeit University, wounding two. We urged that an investigation be initiated immediately.
In 2003, we wrote several times on behalf of Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, sociology professor and pro-democracy activist arrested on spurious charges in retaliation for his activities as founder and head of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, which monitors human rights as well as the conduct of elections.
Last year, his two-and-a-half year ordeal drew to a happy close. In early December 2003 the Court of Cassation annulled a seven-year sentence meted out twice by a lower State Security Court, and in February 2003 it heard the case against Ibrahim and four co-defendants. The final verdict was announced this past March, acquitting Ibrahim in particular of the charges of having tarnished Egypt’s image abroad. Ibrahim’s co-defendants were also released. Pressure from international human-rights groups, including our Committee, as well as the threat of losing a 130-million-dollar aid package from the United States, appear to have spurred the re-investigation of Ibrahim’s case.
In July and August we wrote on behalf of Ashraf Ibrahim, an engineer imprisoned since April 2003 without trial, reportedly under conditions that violate his internationally-recognized rights. He is held in a cell together with criminal convicts, his lawyers have been denied access to some of the interrogation transcripts, and no formal charges have been filed. We urged the Egyptian government to ensure that his basic legal rights were upheld. His trial began on December 6, but no news has reached us of its outcome.
In past years we have written on behalf of the forensic scientists in this country who have been exhuming the bodies of victims of the counter-insurgency campaign of the early 1980’s. In 2003, anthropologists working for the Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) and the Center of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Sciences (CAFCA) once again experienced a surge of threats, intimidation, and attacks. Employees of FAFG were robbed of their cell phones and the phones’ address books were used to make threatening calls. In April alone, the house of the director of FAFG, Freddy Peccerelli, was burglarized, shots were fired at the house, and some female members of his household were trailed by unknown men and harassed. We wrote again to the authorities to request that investigations of all these incidents be carried out with thoroughness and dispatch.
The physician Dr. Ciro Alejandro Pena, arrested in January 2003, was accused of having treated a female patient allegedly related to an armed rebel group. Apparently the woman was neither a member of the rebel group nor in any way connected with it, but of course, her political connections should not have had an influence on her right to medical treatment. It is possible that Dr. Pena’s arrest may have been connected with his past medical activity implicating the Colombian military in the death of 18 campesinos in 1998, itself a grave violation of international human-rights standards. We wrote in protest at this shocking and illegal action on the part of the police.
Recent events in Cuba stunned the world by their harshness. In March 2003, more than 70 dissidents were arrested en masse; most of them were given lengthy sentences running from 15 to 30 years.
We took particular interest in the fate of the economist Marta Beatriz Roque of the Working Group for the Analysis of the Cuban Socio-Economic Situation, winner of the 2003 Pagels Prize from the NYAS and someone on whose behalf we have written repeatedly. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison and has been kept under extremely harsh conditions ever since. Her health has deteriorated, she is denied medical attention, and many of her friends are deeply concerned about her physical survival.
We appealed on Dr. Roque’s behalf not only to President Castro but to Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, several times. We wrote to Mr. Annan in the wake of the election of Cuba to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, pointing out that the credibility of the commission was compromised by such egregious human-rights violations committed by one of its own members.
We also wrote letters on behalf of other scientific colleagues who were taken in the March mass arrests. They included the economists Oscar Espinosa Chepe, Arnaldo Ramos Lauzarrique, and Victor Rolando Arroyo; the physician Dr. Luis Milan Miro; and the medical workers Ariel Sigler Amaya, Guido Sigler Amaya, and Miguel Sigler Amaya.
Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, another colleague whose situation we have followed for a number of years, suffers from brutal physical conditions. He is kept in solitary confinement and denied family visits. Dr. Oscar Espinosa Chepe has severe health problems, but his 20-year sentence remains in effect. For both these individuals, we wrote several letters of appeal.
Dr. Branislav Djordjevic, a physicist from the former Yugoslavia, was arrested in July 2003 and faces deportation. Because of misconduct by his former attorneys, who dropped his case without informing him and did not tell him that a request for asylum had been denied, he had been ignorant of the status of his case until the deadline had passed for leaving the country or appealing. We wrote protesting the severe treatment of Dr. Djordjevic, and especially the denial of bail, since his wife and two small children suffered greatly from his ongoing incarceration. On December 23 he was released on bond, but his predicament remains.