Students advocate for imprisoned scholars in Iran

Dr. Djalali is being held in Iran’s toughest prison on charges of blasphemy. [Photo Contributed by the Family of Dr. Djalali]
By Grace Stafford, Assistant Features Editor —

A seminar in the Honors College is discussing and advocating for the rights of scholars and journalists at risk in countries with weak human rights policies including those of freedom of speech and expression with a focus on two scholars imprisoned in Iran. 

“Scholars and Journalists at Risk” is taught by Dr. Jessica Auchter who teaches in the Department of Political Science and Public Service and the Honors College. Dr. Auchter focuses courses often on world politics, foreign policy and political violence.

Dr. Auchter taught the seminar to the 20 student class in two portions: the first in looking at prior cases of persecution of journalists and academics, and the second in actually advocating for two specific cases of wrongful imprisonment.

We started the class by talking about what the situation for free speech and expression looks like in countries that have some kind of democratic institutions, like elections, but don’t have very good protections for human rights which are sometimes referred to as illiberal democracies or electoral authoritarian countries,” said Dr. Auchter, “and why their protections of human rights seem to be degenerating, and the impact this has had on arrests of scholars and journalists who are critical of their governments.”

These countries include but are not limited to Turkey, Egypt, Russia, Rwanda and Iran.

Dr. Auchter and her class work with an non-governmental advocacy organization called Scholars at Risk to aid journalists and scholars imprisoned in these countries. This is the first course taught by Dr. Auchter that involves hands-on human rights advocacy work, and by partnering with Scholars at Risk, the class is able to verify sources and be in contact with appropriate individuals.

“Scholars at Risk does two main things: first advocacy work for wrongly imprisoned scholars around the world,” said Dr. Auchter. “Second, they work to place at-risk scholars in institutions outside of their home country in visiting or permanent positions.”

The class’s advocacy work focuses on the organization’s first task by working on the cases of two Iranian scholars who are currently imprisoned, Hamid Babaei, a PhD student in finance at University of Liege in Belgium, and Ahmadreza Djalali, a professor of disaster management living in Sweden.

“Both of these scholars were arrested because they refused to spy for the Iranian government,” said Dr. Auchter. “Their prosecutions are politically motivated, and the prison conditions in Iran are quite problematic, often leading to health issues, which both of our scholars are experiencing.”

The two cases taken on by the class are of critical importance especially as Dr. Djalali has recently been sentenced to death. While Hamid Babaei has not received this sentence, his trial was well-known as he had been sentenced to six years in prison after a 10 minute trial.

“One of the scholars, Djalali who has been sentenced to death, taught at the school I attended when studying abroad in Belgium,” said Carson Cook, a senior in the class from Franklin, Tenn.. “We probably bought coffee from the same shop on campus. That really makes it feel real, and shows how horrifying it is that he is rotting away in an Iranian prison while I’m here, where I can say and research anything I like, and not face legal repercussions for it.”

The advocacy work for the scholars included background research on the Iranian political and judicial system, the scholars and other similar cases. Currently, students in the course are working on the more physical advocacy work.

“We are working to get information about the cases out to our elected representatives, and to develop a social media presence to try to spread awareness of our case,” said Dr. Auchter. “We also have plans to send postcards to the imprisoned scholars to try to keep up their morale and so that the Iranian authorities know that the eyes of the world are on these cases.”

On campus, the class is presenting a short film they have developed to draw awareness to these cases of the imprisoned scholars, Hamid Babaei and Ahmadreza Djalali. The screening is on Nov. 29 at 5:30 p.m. in Derthick 101.

For more information about ways to help or future events, visit the Facebook page:

Grace Stafford

Grace Stafford

Features Editor

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