Research belongs in the spotlight, not in prison

In the Nobel week, the world´s attention is focused on science, medicine, literature, peace, and economics, inspired by Alfred Nobel’s belief in the power of knowledge to benefit humankind. This week gives us a much-needed spotlight on scientific research and its role in societal development and social progress. However, amidst this celebration of academic achievements, we should remind ourselves that academic freedom – the freedom to achieve – is lacking or under threat in many parts of the world. This was the topic of yesterday’s digital seminar “Free to Think 2021” organized by Scholars at Risk (SAR).

In 2011, SAR celebrated its 10th anniversary by setting up The Courage to Think Award, which “recognizes individuals, groups, or institutions that have demonstrated an exemplary commitment to protecting scholars and promoting academic freedom, whether through their professional work, private or community service, or by facing personal risk.” Yesterday, in the name of Scholars at Risk, I presented the 2021 Courage to Think Award to Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali, in absentia, in recognition of his courage, his dedication to academic research, and his continuing struggle for freedom.

Ahmadreza Djalali – a KI alumnus and Swedish citizen – has spent years incarcerated in Iran with a death sentence hanging over him. His sentence is a blatant violation of human rights and academic freedom. We must continue to fight for Ahmadreza´s immediate release and send a strong signal and powerful message to Tehran: research belongs in the spotlight, not in prison.

This is the speech I gave yesterday, on presenting the 2021 Courage to Think Award to Ahmadreza Djalali.

This year’s recipient of the Courage to Think Award is Dr Ahmadreza Djalali. He is receiving the award, and I quote, “in recognition of his courage, dedication to his academic profession, and continuing struggle for freedom”.

Dr. Djalali has developed the field of disaster medicine as an academic discipline. He received his medical doctorate in Iran, obtained his PhD from Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and during his work as a scholar he has also been affiliated with Università del Piemonte Orientale in Italy and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium.

He has helped regions in Iran affected by flooding, earthquakes and other natural disasters to get access to medical assistance and training. While at the CRIMEDIM center in Italy he studied the resilience and performance of health care systems including hospitals and medical and rescue staff. He has trained hundreds of humanitarian workers and medical staff all over the world. He is well known and admired within the international community for his high-quality research and teaching in his field. One of his aims was to build understanding and academic relationships between his native country – the Islamic Republic of Iran – and the other countries in which he has worked and lived.

Ahmadreza Djalali has now spent several years in prison in Iran after being arrested in April 2016 when visiting the country for an academic conference. Following a closed trial he was sentenced to death on the alleged charges of ‘corruption on earth’ without any supporting evidence. Since then he has had a death sentence hanging over him.

During his imprisonment in the Evin prison, he has been repeatedly denied access to essential medical care, despite evidence that he is suffering from serious health issues. A year ago he spent several months in solitary confinement. Authorities continue to deny Dr. Djalali access to his lawyer or family, which raises grave concerns that the authorities may be planning to carry out his execution in secret.

It is obvious that his sentence is a blatant violation of basic human rights.

Many professionals and institutions have demanded his release: Colleagues, Nobel Laureates, universities, and not least Scholars at Risk, including its European and Swedish sections. The EU parliament, national governments, individual politicians and non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International have also voiced their support of Dr. Djalali – there is no exaggeration to say that the global community has stood up for him. And rightly so. Never in my career have I seen such a horrendous attack on an individual researcher and his family, on academic freedom, on human rights and on the rule of law.

Unfortunately he is not alone. During today’s seminar we have heard how university staff and students in many parts of the world are subjected to threats, reprisals and direct attacks. It is a worrying trend that urges us to work even harder in support of democracy, human rights and academic freedom.

During this era of geopolitical turbulence we must not scale down our academic collaborations but rather maintain and bolster them. For individual scientists working in countries in which academic freedom is lacking or under threat, their links to the international academic community serve as much-needed ‘oxygen’.

Another way to support our core values is to welcome researchers who are no longer able to work under academic freedom in their own country. This sends a strong signal to authoritarian regimes: any attempt to suppress academic freedom will be a futile exercise. Research disapproved of in one country will be continued in another.  I am very happy that the university that I represent, Karolinska Institutet, only a few weeks ago was awarded a donation that allows us to offer a Scholar at Risk position to a refugee Afghan researcher.

Today’s recognition of Dr. Djalali is yet another part in our collective struggle for academic freedom and human rights. With this award we emphasize that academic freedom is essential for societal development and social progress. Academic freedom is an inherent and essential part of a modern society. It is time for Iran and other countries to move forward.  

Now I turn to you Vida Mehrannia, wife of Ahmadreza Djalali. We are honored by your presence here today and we thank you for accepting the award in the name of your husband. He is a very worthy winner of this award. A courageous scholar and a courageous man, he has pursued his ideas and beliefs even when faced with great personal risks. The consequences for him, for you and for your children have been dire. You have our deepest sympathies. I speak for the organization Scholars at Risk and for Karolinska Institutet when I say that we will continue to do everything in our power to work for Ahmadreza´s immediate release.

In the name of Scholars at Risk I hereby present the 2021 Courage to Think Award to Dr Ahmadreza Djalali, in absentia, in recognition of his courage, his dedication to academic research, and his continuing struggle for freedom.

 Please accept the award in his name.


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