Autocracy vs. Academic Freedom

On June 16th, a University of Toronto PhD student, Alexander Sodiqov, was detained by police in Tajikistan while conducting field research for a project on why western styles of conflict management were failing in former Soviet Republics. Sodiqov, originally from Tajikistan, was apprehended while collecting information as a part of research concerning civil society and conflict prevention, which was part of an ongoing project through the University of Exeter, UK. Alexander remains detained in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, but he has not been charged with any crime under Tajik law.

Alexander had recently begun conducting interviews in the country’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region. The Gorno-Badakhshan Region has been experiencing serious unrest and violence, as Tajik security forces attempt to combat local opposition forces. Authorities claim that Sodiqov was spying for foreign nations; however, he was arrested while conducting interviews for his research. Authoritarian President Emomali Rakhmon, much like Vladimir Putin, has begun to clamp down on journalists, opposition parties, freedom of speech and religion, and, now, academic freedom.

Alexander appears to have been arrested for doing nothing other than serious academic research. He was in the field gathering data and conducting interviews for a legitimate academic project. In short, he was doing what PhD students and professors should be doing. He may very well end up being charged with treason. His crime? Being a young scholar interested in conflict in his home country. This should remind all of us in the academic world that the freedom to pursue our work without fear of government retribution is a special privilege that we take for granted. And everyone who values that work should be concerned about such grave threats to academic freedom.

As Sodiqov’s advisor, Edward Schatz, discussed in an article in the Washington Post, while we rightfully focus on Syria, Russia, China, Iran, and the other big name human rights violators, the Sodiqov arrest should direct our attention our attention to more low-profile countries whose autocratic regimes perpetrate similar human rights abuses. Schatz, in appealing to the scholarly community for support, forcefully argues that:

The detention of Alexander Sodiqov cuts to the core of what research scholars do. They rigorously collect data, analyze them, and disseminate knowledge. Sometimes the intellectual questions they ask take them to places like Khorog, Tajikistan. Sometimes these questions are uncomfortable for sitting political elites to hear. But it is hard — and indeed troubling — to imagine a world where the passion for asking important intellectual questions and pursuing research about them is squelched. Such scholarly research deserves broad public support (and scholars have led the outcry) because producing valid knowledge requires it, and because the fate of people like my student Alexander Sodiqov hangs in the balance.

All those concerned and who wish to help, can find resources on the “Free Alex Sodiqov” webpage.

Daniel Petri is a PhD student in Politics at Catholic University and a graduate fellow at the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies.