Is research getting more dangerous? Roland Marchal’s plight suggest so, David Styan, African arguments, 17 March 2020
Iran’s incarceration of a leading analyst on east and central Africa fits into a pattern of persecution of academics in the Middle East and North Africa.
French academic Roland Marchal is being held in Evin prison in Tehran, Iran, along with several other academics and joint nationals. Credit: Ehsan Iran.
Is academic research on Africa and the Middle East now more dangerous than ever? The incarceration of one of France’s leading analysts of east and central Africa certainly suggests so.
Roland Marchal is one of the most respected analysts of countries such as Somalia, Chad and Sudan. His deep knowledge of key actors and policy has informed his influential work on the sociology of war, while he has frequently been an effective, forensic critic of UN and French activities in Africa. He has now been in detention for over nine months after being arrested in early June 2019.
Marchal is no stranger to threats – whether of violence, detention or expulsion – but the grim irony is that he is being held hostage not by any of the Africa militias or governments he has worked among. Rather, he is being held in Iran, a country he has never written about or researched on. He was seized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and thrown into Tehran’s Evin prison on his way to visit fellow French academic Fariba Adelkhah who was herself arrested hours before his arrival.
After nine months of incarceration, Marchal is “ill and in a bad state, both mentally and physically” according to his lawyer. Adelkhah meanwhile spent the final week of February in hospital following a seven-week hunger strike.
Now, Iran’s botched handling of Coronavirus has led to infections in Evin prison, prompting the government to release tens of thousands of prisoners. The academic detainees are not among them despite widespread and urgent appeals for their release.
Marchal has been deprived of his freedom because of his nationality and status as a prominent researcher from CERI in Paris’ Sciences Po. Adelkhah, an eminent sociologist of the Middle East who also works in CERI, is detained for the same reason. She has published extensively on Iran since the 1980s, while also pursuing inspiring research in Afghanistan and other neighbouring states. Through her seminal publications on the evolution of Iranian society since the 1979 Revolution, she has arguably done more to educate French and English readers of the complex and shifting realities of modern Iran than any other scholar.
Adelkhah, a French-Iranian citizen, constantly eschewed the relative safety of permanent exile. She welcomes academics and friends to Tehran aiming, in her own words, to “form a bridge” between France and Iran. Neither this nor her international eminence, however, have saved the 60-year-old anthropologist from prison. She stands charged with “undermining national security” and “propaganda against the regime”. An initial allegation of espionage, carrying the death penalty, was dropped in January.
Marchal and Adelkhah’s fates are the same as other foreign and dual nationals. A dozen other academics are detained under similarly vague and arbitrary charges. Adelkhah has shared cells with others including UK-Australian researcher Kylie Moore-Gilbert and the prominent British-Iranian detainee Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Most academic prisoners, like Adelkhah and Zaghari-Ratcliffe, have joint nationality, but Iran doesn’t recognise this, refusing consular visits.
Why detain researchers?
These incarcerations serve two purposes for Iran. The first is a sordid search for bargaining chips with the West.
As Iran’s stand-off with the West hardened in mid-2019, the Revolutionary Guards upped their harassment of foreign journalists and seized academics to use as pawns in bilateral negotiations with Western states. Tehran is linking the fate of the French academics to the release of an Iranian arrested in France for contravening sanctions; his case was heard just weeks before Adelkhah and Marchal were arrested. In December 2019, Iran swapped a detained Princeton student for an Iranian scientist imprisoned in the US. British prisoners’ fates are similarly embroiled in longstanding UK-Iranian disputes.
The second purpose is that it feeds into a broader assault on independent research. As Jean-Pierre Filiu highlights, Iran’s arbitrary imprisonment of academics is part of a widening pattern of persecution – of both domestic and foreign academics – throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
In 2018, Durham-based researcher Matthew Hedges was incarcerated by the United Arab Emirates. In 2016, Cambridge PhD student Giulio Regeni was murdered in Egypt as he researched labour rights. This February, a second Italian researcher disappeared in Egypt in chillingly similar circumstances. Reflecting on Hedges’ plight, Shana Marshall notes that the difference between foreign students and spies is now wilfully blurred by rulers in Egypt and the Gulf.
An international campaign
The two CERI researchers are now at the heart of an international campaign to highlight the plight of academic research and arbitrary detentions. Adelkhah and Moore-Gilbert began a hunger strike in Evin on 24 December aiming to defend “all academics and researchers across Iran and the Middle East, who like us have been unjustly imprisoned on trumped up charges and simply doing their job as researchers”. Adelkhah’s plea to “save researchers to save research and preserve history” echoed well beyond the prison walls and Iran. Gravely weakened after seven weeks on liquids, she was persuaded to suspend self-starvation on 11 February.
On the same date, Iran’s national day, a global network of academics and research institutes called for the researchers’ release via a Tribune published in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The academic advocacy body Scholars At Risk has amplified their call, while highlighting the plight of other academics detained in Iran such as the young environmentalist Niloufar Bayani who was sentenced to ten years in prison last year.
The hope is that the academics’ current plight will trigger urgent awareness of the threats to independent researchers in the social sciences in Africa, the Middle East and beyond. It was the subject of a large conference in Paris that included a diverse group of academics, diplomats, former hostages and activists like Cameroon’s Valsero. They called for broader solidarity to support academic research. Previous Article
David Styan teaches in the Department of Politics, Birkbeck College, University of London. This is an edited version of recent work on the topic.