When scientists become political dissenters
Science advances by the free exchange of ideas. New ones are put forward and pitted against existing ones, and fights are fought with rational arguments. Scientists tend to take this freedom for granted and carry it over to other fields, such as politics, where challenging prevailing opinion goes under the name of dissent and may be much less welcome.
Scientists make tough dissenters for the powers that be. They cannot be dismissed offhand as incompetent, and they bring to the discussion professional standards that are hard to match. They cannot be quietly put away for their opinions, for they belong to an international community that will support them. So, they have to be discredited in some way.
In the time of the Soviet Union, the preferred charge was insanity. Dissenting scientists, such as Alexander Esenin-Volpin and Leonid Plyushch, were routinely sent to psychiatric hospitals. Nowadays, the favoured charge is supporting terrorism. Here are three examples, among many others:
Turkish mathematician Tuna Altınel has lived and worked in Lyon, France since 1996. In 2019 he participated in a public meeting in Lyon on the subject of alleged massacres in southeastern Turkey. The local Turkish consul reported on this meeting to the Turkish authorities in Ankara, mentioning that Altınel had served as a poll watcher. A charge of membership in an armed terrorist group resulted.
On an April visit to Turkey, Altınel's passport was confiscated. He was subsequently arrested and placed in pretrial detention for 81 days. Charges were later reduced to propaganda for a terrorist group. Altınel was acquitted of the latter charge in January 2020. His passport has not been restored, and the government recently sent a letter saying it will not be; he thus remains unable to leave Turkey. Administrative sanctions not subject to public scrutiny have been widely applied in Turkey in response to political expression.
With reference to the statutes invoked, the European Court of Human Rights has condemned the use of criminal procedures such as detention on remand to punish and discourage the exercise of freedom of expression.
The case of Azat Miftakhov, a mathematics graduate student at Moscow State University, is somewhat special. Miftakhov was neither a public opponent of Putin's regime nor yet a professional scientist. His academic career was only starting (with a single publication in the field of stochastics). By that reason one can hardly expect that professional organisations would step up for him. However, Miftakhov's figure became a sort of litmus test for Russian academic society, dividing people into those who trust the system and those who question its justice. Miftakhov comes from Tatarstan in the Russian Federation. While still in school, he won prizes in several math competitions and received support given to talented young people by the Ministry of Education and Science.
As a student in Moscow, he became involved with the anarchist movement. In June 2018 and January 2019 Miftakhov was harassed via a telegram channel allegedly connected with Russia's law enforcement agencies. In February 2019, right after his return from a conference in Nizhni Novgorod where Miftakhov gave his first talk in English, he was detained by the state authorities and accused of manufacturing explosives. Miftakhov was reportedly tortured by the police. After three days he was released as the court found no evidence for his detention. In less than two days, on February 9, 2019, Miftakhov was again arrested and accused of destruction of the office window of the ruling political party, United Russia, which occurred more than a year ago.
Miftakhov has pled not guilty. Despite the obvious lack of evidence, he has been kept in jail since then. The Russian human rights center Memorial recognises Miftakhov as a political prisoner. A letter condemning torture against Miftakhov and calling for his immediate release was signed by many prominent scientists from Russia and worldwide.
On Thursday, July 16th 2020, Palestinian astrophysicist Imad Barghouthi, a professor at the University of Al-Quds in East Jerusalem, was detained by Israeli military forces during a routine stop at a military checkpoint outside of Anata. After more than two weeks without information on the reason for his detention, on August 2 Barghouthi was charged by an Israeli military prosecutor with "incitement and support for a hostile organisation" on the basis of his Facebook posts.
After an Israeli judge twice accepted his lawyer's request that Barghouthi be released on bail, the military commander of the West Bank ordered him placed under administrative detention until November 15. Administrative detention is an illegal measure under international law commonly used by the Israeli military forces to hold Palestinians in prison without charge or trial.
This is not the first time that the Israeli military forces have arrested Barghouthi, one of Palestine's most prominent scientists. In 2014 he was placed under administrative detention for two months, and in 2016 he was again detained for six months. In both cases his arrest triggered significant indignation on the part of the international scientific community.
The procedures may differ, but the result is the same: through administrative and juridical harassment, civil or military, our colleagues are deprived of their fundamental freedoms, including academic freedom. It is up to scientists to alert their professional associations and to mobilise, as they did at the time of the Soviet Union, to demand that Altınel, Miftakhov, and Barghouthi recover their freedom and their rights, immediately and unconditionally.
The views expressed by the authors are their own and do not represent those of their institutions, which are included for identification purposes only.