against national security, a charge her defendants
vehemently deny. Reports suggest that she has
been held in solitary confinement and that her
health is failing.
Meanwhile, U of T undergraduate student
Tahmid Khan has been detained in Bangladesh
since July 1 in connection with an attack on a
café and has since been arrested. His family and
friends insist on his innocence.
Their experience is unfortunately not unique:
John Greyson, a Toronto filmmaker and associate professor at York University, and Tarek
Loubani, an emergency room physician and
assistant professor at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, were
arrested in Egypt in 2013 and held for 50 days
without charge. University of Alberta PhD candidate Curtis Riep was arrested in Uganda this
past May while on a research trip, only to see the
charges dropped days later.
Professors who have experienced and studied such incidents, and Canadian government
officials speaking on background, say there is a
clear understanding that universities have, at
least on some level, a duty of care to their students, professors and others who travel abroad
in their name. There is also broad agreement that
preparation is key both for the traveller and the
university administration. But they also say there
is no one-size-fits-all answer as to what steps a
university, its professors or its students should
take if someone is detained.
Risk reduction meets academic freedom
according to government figures, there were
around 1,300 consular cases last year involving
Canadians – academic or other wise – arrested or
detained in a foreign country. Global Affairs
Canada offers advice to students, professors and
university administrators about the steps they
can take to better prepare themselves for a potential incident before it happens. This takes the
form of on-campus information fairs and presentations, as well as webinars, where department officials offer tips and answer questions.
“Students, teachers and professors can
request a personalized presentation or webinar
tailored to their destination by emailing travel@
international.gc.ca,” wrote spokesperson Jocelyn
Sweet in an emailed response to questions.
Global Affairs Canada stresses four to-do items
for Canadian travellers, including academics:
report their upcoming trip to the Registration of
Canadians Abroad service; buy travel health
insurance; follow the department’s social media
accounts for alerts; and check its travel adviso-
ries for the destination country. Travel advisories
are frequently updated and each country is
assigned one of four risk levels: “exercise normal
security precautions,” “exercise a high degree of
caution,” “avoid nonessential travel” and “avoid
One straightforward way of limiting the risk
to which scholars are exposed is for universities
to ban travel to countries that have been assigned
the top two risk levels. René Provost, a professor
of law and founding director of the Centre for
Human Rights and Legal Pluralism at McGill
University, said this is how McGill approaches
When he was running an international
human rights internship program at McGill’s
faculty of law, Dr. Provost said he had to suspend
operations in Burkina Faso after armoured vehicles surrounded NGO offices. In another instance, the program had to suspend operations
in Pakistan after the situation deteriorated there.
The problem, he admitted, is that professors
and students need to go abroad to conduct
research, and research can’t always happen in
perfectly safe areas. “It’s part of academic free-
dom to have that choice,” he said. “It would be
no small thing, and not unproblematic, to sug-
gest that universities could have a right to curtail
the subject matter of a professor’s research by
saying, ‘You can’t go there.’”
In some cases, universities can be used as
conduits to help keep open a channel of com-
munication, said Dr. Provost. Universities under-
stand they are “part of a collective endeavor to
advance human knowledge, and that the nega-
tion of academic freedom anywhere is a threat
to academic freedom everywhere,” he said.
That means universities could call on their
Des bonnes idées
counterparts in the country where the scholar is
being detained, he said, to use their status in sup-
port of the right of scholars to conduct their
work. “You are trying to find channels to the
people who can make a difference, who can
make decisions that will have an impact.”
In the case of Concordia’s Dr. Hoodfar, the
situation is further complicated by the fact that
Canada doesn’t have formal diplomatic relations
with Iran. Friends and acquaintances of Dr.
Hoodfar have set up a website, homahoodfar.
org, to raise awareness of her imprisonment and
advocate for her release. A petition they started
has been signed by more than 5,000 academics.
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