Advocating for academic freedom

By Paige Degnan, Herald Contributor – November 10

Creative Writing 345: Advocacy Seminar has been a course option at Roger Williams University since 2005. Led by Professor Adam Braver, this course meets once a week for 3 hours every semester in more of a meeting-like setting. The goal of the course each year is to advocate for a scholar who has been unjustly imprisoned in another country. The impact of student advocacy efforts can be felt when learning about the unjust treatment the scholars face and understand the severity of the human rights violations these countries enforce.

Professor Adam Braver, founder of Advocacy Seminar at RWU, explained in an interview, “In our culture, we are privileged; we have to use that privilege to help others who cannot advocate for themselves. In our university, we value critical thinking and freedom of expression. Advocacy Seminar aims to uphold these rights for scholars in other countries.”

The course is a partnership with Scholars At Risk, an international network of institutions and individuals whose mission is to protect scholars and promote academic freedom. Scholars At Risk began in 1999 and has worked with student groups at a multitude of universities in seminars similar to RWU. Members of the RWU course travel to New York City and Washington, DC to encourage policy makers to act. The team also spends the semester raising awareness about the current campaign through social media efforts, such as engaging international support through hashtags, as well as contributing to campus events.

Over the years, students have worked on 8 campaigns and helped to free 5 scholars. Their most recent efforts to free Hossein Rafiee, an imprisoned Iranian professor who was arrested for “propaganda,” helped to grant him a medical leave and return home. Students may recall RWU SAR’s presence at tabletimes in Commons and at on-campus events to allow students, faculty, and staff at RWU to partake in the cause by signing petition and postcards.

RWU alum and an original member of Advocacy Seminar Ashley Barton stated, “People should join the Advocacy Seminar because of the perspective it gives you on the world.”

This year, the group of students is focusing their efforts on Hamid Babaei, an Iranian student who was unjustly sentenced to six years in prison for refusing to spy for the Iranian government. Babaei was pursuing his PhD in finance while studying abroad at the University of Liege in Belgium. Upon returning to Iran, Babaei was questioned by the government and charged with “acting against national security by communicating with a hostile government” in apparent retaliation for his refusal to spy on fellow Iranian students in Belgium. Babaei was sentenced to six years in Rajaei-Shahr prison and is currently serving year three.

SAR understands that he has experienced medical issues since November 2014, and is currently in need of urgent medical attention for severe gum disease and other dental problems that are causing additional medical issues. SAR further understands that the judiciary permitted Mr. Babaei a visit to an external dentist, but that prison authorities did not allow him to attend the appointments. SAR calls for letters and emails respectfully urging the authorities to reconsider the sentence against Mr. Babaei and, pending his earliest release, to ensure Mr. Babaei’s well-being and regular access to medical care, in accordance with international human rights standards.

“I’m looking forward to learning about other cultures and doing whatever I can to help someone who is wrongfully imprisoned,” explained new member Zach Dasilva, junior, when asked what he is looking forward to the most.

The RWU SAR collaborative is an ongoing, engaging course which hopes to continue efforts to provide justice for scholars who may require an outside ally.