By Katheryn Bourne, Staff Writer–


UTC’s Political Science and Public Service’s Capstone course organized an international advocacy week from Oct. 21 to Oct. 25 to call attention to cases of academic imprisonment around the world. Partnering with Scholars At Risk, an international network of institutions that advocates for wrongly imprisoned academics, the week’s events included a Scenic Roots radio broadcast, tabling campaigns in the UC, and a movie screening of Tickling Giants.

The two main events included a visit from Maryam Rafiee, an Iranian professor whose father was imprisoned in Iran, on Wednesday, Oct. 24 and a Sweet Research presentation delivered by the class on Friday, Oct. 25.

Dr. Jessica Auchter, Guerry Professor and instructor of the PSPS Capstone course, says the purpose of the week of advocacy is to ask larger questions about declining democracy around the world.

“[Advocacy] raises larger issues, such as the right of an individual to critique his own government and the plight of the wrongly imprisoned,” she notes. “Beyond that, it allows us to recognize how privileged we are to be in a country and in a university environment that is supportive of freedom of inquiry, which is not the case for many in the world today.”

The class, along with hosting talks about advocacy in general, focused on the case of Professor GN Saibaba. Saibaba was imprisoned in 2014 for writing against India’s treatment of indigenous peoples living in the southeast of the country. After a raid on Saibaba’s home and the discovery of his hard drives, the professor was arrested and charged with terrorism and gang activity along with connection to Maoist extremist groups.

Saibaba was convicted and sentenced to life in prison on March 7, 2017. After vetting Saibaba, the Scholars at Risk Network discovered these charges to be unfounded and without evidence, and began networking to help his case. The class obtained contact with Scholars at Risk through Dr. Auchter.

One of the motivators for choosing Saibaba’s case, according to members of the class, was the professor’s declining health. According to Saibaba’s case file from SAR, his health has only worsened while in prison and attempts to obtain medical treatment have been denied.

“Professor Saibaba suffers from post-polio syndrome, which inhibits the use of his legs,” the file reads. “Since his arrest, his health has deteriorated at an alarming rate. In addition to his disability, Professor Saibaba is suffering from 19 health issues, including life-threatening acute pancreatitis and impacted gallbladder stones, both requiring surgery immediately.”

The class coordinated a postcard signing campaign along with other events during the week. The campaign, according to Capstone students, was meant to show support for Saibaba’s family and to encourage them.

Tyler Wheat, a public policy major and student in the Capstone course, reflects on the importance of taking into account Saibaba’s family and the impact his imprisonment has had on them.

“We kind of had to take on a witness mindset,” he said. “We wanted to impact his life and his family as much as possible because they miss his dearly and know his health condition is deteriorating.”

Maryam Rafiee, after speaking with campus on Oct. 23 echoes the goal of the Capstone course’s work and future work to be done when advocating for scholars. 

“The absolute worst thing to happen to someone who is wrongfully imprisoned is to be forgotten,” she said.

This sentiment is echoed by students from other departments who attended the event. Jessica Green, a senior psychology major, expressed her interest in examining cases like these further, drawing on Maryam Rafiee’s talk for inspiration.

“I want to write my cultural analysis on this program because not only does spreading the word allow these individuals to not be forgotten,” she said, “but also it prevents oppressive cultures from stifling the freedom to learn, question, and share ideas.”

Being that this year marks the first time the Political Science department at UTC has offered a Capstone course, the course is adapted so future classes can continue the advocacy for Saibaba or other at risk scholars through SAR and the PSPS department.

More information about the week’s events, Maryam Rafiee, professor Saibaba, or advocacy in general can be found on the student-made website https://sites.google.com/mocs.utc.edu/pspscapstoneadvocacyproject/home or by sending inquiries to psps.capstone.utc@gmail.com

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