by Abby DeVeuve, Connections Intern
Students at Roger Williams University continue to work to make an impact on a global scale through the Advocacy Seminar, an experiential based course that stems from the university’s relationship with Scholars at Risk (SAR), an NGO based in New York. The Advocacy Seminar bonds a student collaboration between RWU and SAR, based on the shared belief that intellectual freedom and freedom of speech is hallmark of a just society. As students whose higher pursuits are based on our rights to free expression, we believe it is our responsibility to support other thinkers and writers around the world who are having theirs denied.
To carry out this mission, every year the RWU/SAR students pick a case of a scholar that has been imprisoned for speaking his or her mind or writing about his or her ideas. Recently we worked on cases from Ethiopia and China, and we are currently on our 7th case. This year our team is working on the case of Mohammad Hossein Rafiee Fanood, a 70-year-old retired Tehran University chemistry professor. He was previously arrested in February 2001 on charges of “legal subversion,” and spent six months in solitary confinement. He was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment, but this sentence was never implemented. Because more than 10 years had passed, it can no longer be implemented. However, in 2015, his house was searched and his computers were seized. He was arrested in June 2015 without a warrant and is currently serving a six-year jail sentence on charges related to his blog posts and published articles. On his blog, Dr. Rafiee wrote about his support for the Nuclear Deal, but also called for improved human rights and the release of political prisoners–such criticisms of the government are taken very seriously in Iran. The charges against him include membership with an illegal group, propaganda against the regime through giving interviews to media outlets hostile to the Islamic Republic, issuing statements that threaten national security, and the use of television satellite equipment. Dr. Rafiee, and the entire Iranian population, do not benefit from the same freedom of speech enjoyed in the United States. He cannot criticize the government or talk about human rights in Iran without facing consequences from the government.
Dr. Rafiee is currently detained in Section 8 of the notorious Evin Prison. This section of the prison holds inmates that include drug traffickers and Somalian pirates. Poor prison conditions, including the lack of hygiene, inadequate medical provision, and poor nutrition, are affecting Dr. Rafiee’s pre-existing health conditions including a heart problem, high blood pressure, a thyroid condition and a chronic allergy. Dr. Rafiee’s daughter, Maryam, is concerned about her father’s well-being, and is disturbed by the fact that the Iranian government does not appear to be following its own legal procedures in detaining her father.
The team working on Dr. Rafiee’s case is led by Professor Adam Braver and currently consists of majors in Creative Writing, English Literature, Legal Studies, and Architecture, and welcomes students of any major to join. We are currently building the case by researching the Iranian legal and prison systems, learning more about Dr. Rafiee’s situation, and speaking with members of other organizations working on Dr. Rafiee’s case such as the American Chemical Society. We recently skyped with Maryam and learned more about the events leading up to her father’s imprisonment and about a letter she drafted to be signed by scientists and sent to Iran. This letter was disseminated to science professors on the RWU campus to ask for their support of a fellow scientist and his right to freedom of speech and expression of ideas.
So what is next for the Seminar? After sufficiently having researched the case, next will begin our advocacy efforts. RWU SAR students focus on raising awareness within the RWU community through letter writing campaigns and social media. Advocacy efforts extend outside the campus through social media and trips to New York City to visit the SAR headquarters and to Washington, D.C. to gain the support of the U.S. government.
Please look for our current social media campaign on our Facebook page, RWU SAR: Scholars in Prison, and be sure to like the page for updates on Dr. Rafiee’s case.
All students can participate in another ongoing campaign in which we are flooding the jail with mail by sending postcards to the prison where Dr. Rafiee is detained. The postcards let Dr. Rafiee’s jailers know that his case has gained international attention. They also send the message that people care what happens to him and are watching for any further human rights violations. The more awareness we raise about Mohammad Hossein Rafiee Fanood’s situation, the greater pressure Iran may feel to reconsider their hardline position.