MESA - Middle East Studies Association

Letters on Syria

February 19, 2013

Open Letter to the Office of the Syrian President
and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces

To Whom It May Concern,

I write on behalf of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) of North America and its Committee on Academic Freedom regarding the deeply disturbing reports of armed attacks on university campuses in Syria. The latest such incident occurred at the University of Aleppo on January 15, 2013. As many as 80 people, including university faculty and students, are said to have lost their lives, and more than 150 people were injured. MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom joins the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, the Scholars at Risk Network and the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund in condemning this atrocious act. We call on all parties to the conflict in Syria to desist immediately from operations targeting educational facilities and to take all necessary steps to protect these places and the Syrians who teach and study there.

MESA was founded in 1966 to promote scholarship and teaching on the Middle East and North Africa. The preeminent organization in the field, the Association publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies and has nearly 3,000 members worldwide. MESA is committed to ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expression, both within the region and in connection with the study of the region in North America and elsewhere.

On January 15, two major explosions rocked the University of Aleppo, killing more than 80 people, wounding over 150 more, and causing significant structural damage to campus buildings. The first blast occurred outside the Faculty of Architecture, where students had gathered in anticipation of their final exams; the second targeted a dormitory that had recently been converted into housing for internally displaced Syrians from the city of Aleppo and environs.

Within a couple of days of these horrific attacks, the Syrian minister of education, Muhammad Yahya Mu‘alla, affirmed that classes, exams, scholarly research and other university-related activities would continue as scheduled, although exams were postponed until the following Sunday. Students and faculty at universities around the country held a day of mourning for the victims of the attacks. Classes for the new term have reportedly resumed as of January 29.

Even as the circumstances of this particular attack remain unclear, it is known that the Syrian regime has attacked other educational institutions during the uprising, claiming to be fighting “terrorist elements” that have sought shelter there. At the first glimmer of demonstrations at Damascus University in June 2011, regime forces, including paramilitary elements, stormed university dormitories in search of student activists. When anti-regime protests occurred at the University of Aleppo on May 3, 2012, Syrian security personnel were dispatched onto campus to break up the crowds, killing at least six students and shutting down campus activities until final exams were scheduled about a week later.

It may be difficult, in the context of a conflict as fierce as Syria’s, to establish incontrovertible facts about these incidents of violence. It is clear, however, that a pattern exists: University campuses in Syria are not the safe spaces that they should be. The failure of the Syrian regime to provide basic security for universities is another index of the terrifying instability that attends this protracted conflict.

We abhor all the attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure that have occurred in the course of the Syrian conflict. In the ambient chaos, it is vital that Syrians have spaces where they may work together to articulate pluralistic, humanistic visions for their country’s future and forge the bonds that can bring those visions to fruition. University campuses are one such place, and they should be utterly inviolate. We note with admiration that classes at the University of Aleppo were held up to the moment of the January 15 attack, despite the months of battles in the city, and that they have now resumed after the lethal bombings. Syrians at this and other institutions of higher learning are plainly determined to exercise one of the most basic of all human rights—the right to pursue knowledge in peace. We salute their courage.

We repeat our appeal to all combatant parties in Syria to refrain from any and all armed operations at schools and universities. It is our fervent hope that the Syrian conflict will end soon and that Syrian universities will not only resume their vibrant intellectual life but also become a home for efforts at social and political reconciliation and lasting peace.

We recognize, however, that no quick end to the Syrian fighting is in view and that our Syrian colleagues remain in physical peril. So we also call upon our colleagues at North American and other international institutions of higher education to explore ways of hosting Syrian students and faculty who are in exile or seeking refuge. We likewise urge our colleagues to look into how they may collaborate with such groups as the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, the Scholars at Risk Network and the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund to create opportunities for Syrian students, researchers and professors in danger.

Sincerely,


Peter Sluglett
MESA President
Visiting Research Professor, Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore

cc:
Chronicle of Higher Education
Council for Assisting Refugee Academics
Scholars at Risk Network
Institute of International Education-Scholar Rescue Fund

 

April 18, 2006

President Bashar Al-Asad
c/o His Excellency Imad Moustapha
The Embassy of Syria
2215 Wyoming Ave. N.W.
Washington, DC 20008
Fax: 202-265-4585

Dear President Al-Asad:

I write to you on behalf of the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association of North America to protest in the strongest possible terms the continued unlawful imprisonment of our colleague Professor Arif Dalila and to encourage you to use your good offices to secure his release, to ensure that he receives adequate medical care and that his family not be subject to any further harassment or ill treatment.

The Middle East Studies Association of North American (MESA) was founded in 1966 to promote scholarship and teaching on the Middle East and North Africa. The preeminent organization in the field, the Association publishes the international the International Journal of Middle East Studies and has more than 2600 members worldwide. MESA is committed to ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expression, both within the region and in connection with the study of the region in North America and elsewhere.

We have been following the case of Professor Dalila for several years since
his arrest in September of 2001 and have written to you before on his account (11 January 2002). As you are aware, he was arrested after having founded the Committees for the Revival of Civil Society, a nongovernmental organization. In addition to his participation in civic forums, Professor Dalila was one of ninety-nine intellectuals who signed the Intellectuals’ Manifesto of September 2000, also known as the “Statement of the 99,” a document that is widely regarded as having paved the way for the emergence of civic forums in Syria. He subsequently helped organize a petition signed by 1,000 Syrian citizens demanding freedom of expression, pluralism, strengthening the role of women in public life, freedom of press, and the restoration of civil society.

In November 2002, MESA awarded Professor Dalila one of our highest honors, the Academic Freedom Award, recognizing him: “For his courageous advocacy of democratic rights and civil liberties as an academic and in his professional field of economics, and his commitment as a public intellectual in Syria to the principles of free expression and the free exchange of information and ideas…and in recognition of his endurance of persecution and harassment by the government of Syria on account of his advocacy of fundamental rights and liberties for all Syrians.”

Since our first letter, we have received credible reports that Professor Dalila has been subjected to torture and ill-treatment and denied access to medical care. The authorities have harassed his family and persons believed to be agents of the government attacked and seriously wounded his son Shadi. Calls for his release by intellectuals and academics throughout the Arab world and beyond have gone unheeded.

As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights since 1969, Syria is obliged to respect and protect the exercise of those rights enumerated in Articles 18, 19, and 21¬namely the right to freedom of thought, expression, and opinion. The Covenant also prohibits torture and inhuman treatment (Article 7) as well as arbitrary arrest and deprivation of liberty, except under legally established procedures (Article 9).

The Covenant also requires that anyone arrested should be treated with respect and dignity (Article 10) and that they be informed of the nature of the charges against him/her (Article 14). We therefore urge you to take the steps necessary to end the multiple infringements of Professor Dalila’s fundamental human rights.

We also urge you to affirm the right of professors and intellectuals as well as others to organize social, political and cultural clubs and civil society organizations free from unnecessary governmental interference. If necessary, the government should revise legislation governing the right of association to comply with international standards.

President Al-Asad, we urge you to secure the immediate release of Professor Dalila on humanitarian grounds and to make certain he be given appropriate medical attention.

We thank you in advance for your attention to this matter and look forward
to your reply.

Sincerely,
Juan R.I. Cole
MESA President


May 18, 2005

President Bashar al-Asad
c/o Ambassador Imad Moustapha, Ph.D.
Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic
2215 Wyoming Ave. NW
Washington DC 20008
via facsimile: 202-265-4585 or 202-232-4357

Dear President al-Asad:

We are writing on behalf of the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association of North America to express our grave concern about the detention and alleged torture of up to 40 Syrian university students during April 2005 in the Governorate of Latakia. Syrian security forces reportedly took these students into custody solely on the basis of their alleged membership in an unrecognized and unsanctioned student organization, in violation of their internationally recognized rights to freedom of association and freedom of expression.

The Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) comprises 2700 academics worldwide who teach and conduct research on the Middle East and North Africa, and is the preeminent professional association in the field. The association publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies, and is committed to ensuring respect for the principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression in the region and in connection with the study of the Middle East and North Africa.

According to information we have received, these students were first detained by state security forces during the third week of April. Many continue to be held incommunicado and without charge. Last week, six of the students who were released reported to the Syrian Committee for Human Rights that they had been subjected to torture – including beatings and the use of electrodes.

As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights since 1969, Syria is obliged to respect and protect the exercise of those rights enumerated in Articles 18, 19, and 21—namely the right to freedom of thought, expression, and opinion. The Covenant also prohibits torture and inhuman treatment (Article 7) as well as arbitrary arrest and deprivation of liberty, except under legally established procedures (Article 9). The Covenant also requires that anyone arrested should be treated with respect and dignity (Article 10) and that they be informed of the nature of the charges against him/her (Article 14). 
We therefore urge you to take the steps necessary to end the multiple infringements of their fundamental human rights. Those still in custody should be released or charged with a recognizable criminal offense and provided with a trial in a court of law that meets international fair trial standards. Those in custody should be allowed access to their families and to legal counsel.

We also urge you to affirm the right of students as well as others to organize social, political and cultural clubs and civil society organizations free from unnecessary governmental interference. If necessary, the government should revise legislation governing the right of association to comply with international standards.

We also request that the government make available information concerning the current whereabouts of those students still in detention, their conditions of confinement, and the nature of the criminal charges made against them.

We thank you in advance for your attention to this matter and look forward to your reply.

Sincerely,

Ali Banuazizi
President, Middle East Studies Association
Professor, Boston College

cc:
Dr. Hani Murtada, Minister of Higher Education, Syrian Arab Republi
Dr. Amir Ibrahim, Rector, Tishrin University, Syrian Arab Republic
Dr. Imad Moustapha, Ambassador of the Syrian Arab Republic
HE Kofi Annan, Secretary General, United Nations


January 11, 2002

President Bashar al-Asad
c/o Ambassador Rostom al-Zoubi
Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic
2215 Wyoming Ave. NW
Washington DC 20008

Dear President Asad,

The Committee on Academic Freedom in the Middle East and North Africa (CAFMENA) of the Middle East Studies Association of North America is writing to express our grave concern regarding the arrest on September 9 and subsequent detention of Professor Arif Dalila, the renowned economist and scholar, along with the arrest and detention in the same period of nine other Syrian citizens who participated actively in civic forums created following your election as president in July 2000. We view these arrests, and the restrictive new press and publications decree issued on September 22, as troubling evidence of your government’s determination to stifle all manner of peaceful dissent, reversing earlier signs that you intended to expand opportunities for political participation in Syria.

[MESA is …]

We call on you to acknowledge and protect the right of Syrian citizens, including academic researchers and faculty, to engage in political discussion and debate, and to express views that are critical of government policies, without fear of reprisal. We ask that you take all possible steps to secure the immediate and unconditional release of Professor Dalila and his colleagues, who are now facing criminal prosecution and potentially lengthy terms of imprisonment solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression and association.

According to information we have received, Professor Dalila was arrested following his participation in a meeting of the National Dialogue Forum, held on or about September 6 at the home of Member of Parliament Riad al-Seif, the forum’s founder. Mr. al-Seif was himself stripped of parliamentary immunity and arrested on September 6. He and another parliamentarian, Mamoun al-Hamsi, who was arrested on August 9, are presently being tried in a criminal court. According to al-Seif’s lawyer, he has been accused of, among other things, “organizing subversive gatherings” and “gatherings aimed at causing disorder,” and “forming a secret society.”

To our knowledge, no formal charges have been lodged against Professor Dalila. According to information we have received, the ostensible grounds for his detention are vague assertions that he and seven fellow detainees insulted and "threatened to change" the Syrian constitution. This accusation apparently derives from Riad al-Seif’s announced plan’s to launch a new political party, the Movement for Social Peace, whose platform called for ending the monopoly of the Ba’th Party on political power in Syria, although to our knowledge not all of these detainees, if any of them, were engaged in that project, which is distinct from the civic forum efforts.

Professor Dalila and the seven other detainees are being held in Adra Prison, pending trial before the Supreme State Security Court. International human rights organizations have documented a history of grossly unfair trials before this tribunal, the verdicts of which are not subject to appeal to a higher judicial body.

Professor Dalila has previously been subject to penalties for his commitment to freedom of expression. In 1997, while serving as Dean of the Economics Faculty at the Syrian University, Professor Dalila organized a conference that was intended to encourage open debate about the state of Syria’s economy. Then-Prime Minister Mahmoud Zoubi intervened personally to prevent the conference from taking place. In 1998 Prime Minister Zoubi ordered that Professor Dalila be fired from his post. After being deprived of his right to work for more than two years, and following a meeting with your excellency, he was reinstated, reportedly on your instructions, to his teaching position {although not to his position as dean) in August 2000.

On resuming his position, Professor Dalila helped to found the Committees for the Revival of Civil Society, a nongovernmental organization. In addition to his participation in the civic forums, Professor Dalila was one of ninety-nine intellectuals who signed the Intellectuals’ Manifesto of September 2000, also known as the “Statement of the 99,” a document that is widely regarded as having paved the way for the emergence of civic forums in Syria. He subsequently helped organize a petition signed by 1,000 Syrian citizens demanding freedom of expression, pluralism, strengthening the role of women in public life, freedom of press, and the restoration of civil society.

Professor Dalila and his fellow citizen activists initiated these activities in response to steps you had taken, on becoming president, such as the release of hundreds of political prisoners, and the January 2001 announcement that the emergency law, in effect since 1963, had been “frozen” and “not applied.” They obviously had understood these steps to signal your interest in seeing a renewal of independent political life in Syria.

While the civic forums did not receive government approval to operate with official legal status, they were nevertheless tolerated prior to the government clampdown. It is therefore extremely disturbing to see these courageous individuals subjected to imprisonment and the threat of harsh and arbitrary sanctions for attempting to exercise basic rights guaranteed to them under Syria’s constitution and in keeping with Syria’s treaty obligations as a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
For these reasons, MESA calls on you to secure the immediate and unconditional release of Professor Dalila and those other detainees held in connection with their participation in civil society forums. We look forward to your response regarding this most serious matter.

Sincerely,

Anne H. Betteridge
Executive Director



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