The Tunisian authorities should protect individual and academic freedoms from acts of violence and other threats by religiously motivated groups acting on university campuses, Human Rights Watch said today. Both the university authorities and the state security forces will need to cooperate to protect the rights to security and education of students and faculty.
One university suspended classes on December 6, 2011, because of security concerns. Demonstrators have caused disruptions on the campuses of at least four universities since October, demanding imposition of their own interpretation of Islam in the curriculum and in campus life and dress. They have interrupted classes, prevented students from taking exams, confined deans in their offices, and intimidated women professors.
“Tunisian authorities should of course protect the right to protest peacefully but should show zero tolerance when groups of protesters disrupt campus learning with threats of violence,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The timing and location of some of these protests suggest that they were planned to cause maximum disruption by interfering with exams, thus depriving thousands of students of their rights.”
The Higher Education Ministry, the supervisory authority for universities in Tunisia, has yet to take decisive action to deter disruptions of academic life and acts of aggression and intimidation by fundamentalist groups on campus.
Security forces have made no arrests in these incidents, although those who attacked or threatened the staff of public universities appear to have violated the law. Under article 116 of the penal code, it is a criminal offense for “anyone who uses or threatens to use violence on civil servants in order to force them to perform, or to prevent them from performing, their official duties.”
The most sustained protests have occurred at the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanities of Manouba, a city near Tunis, the capital. Other incidents took place at the business school of the University of Manouba, the School of Arts and Humanities of Sousse, the Higher Institute of Arts and Crafts in Kairouan, and the Higher Institute of Theology of Tunis.
The principles of university autonomy and non-intervention on campus should not be used by the government as an excuse to relinquish its obligation to ensure security of students and professors, to deter outsiders from disrupting academic activities, and to see to it that demonstrations do not disproportionately impair the rights of others, Human Rights Watch said.
The Tunisian government should ensure swift intervention of security forces whenever requested by the faculty to prevent third parties from seriously disrupting academic life, Human Rights Watch said. Authorities should also put in place monitoring systems so that physical attacks and threats on schools, teachers, and students are tracked, to identify those responsible and to hold them accountable in conformity with the Tunisian penal code.
“Under President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisian campuses were stifled by enforced political uniformity,” Whitson said. “Tunisian students and professors didn’t help to oust Ben Ali only to see one form of repression on campus replaced by another.”
At the University of Manouba on November 28, a group that swelled to 100 people, according to witnesses, interrupted classes and prevented students from taking exams, chanting slogans demanding an end to the ban on women wearing the full-face veil (niqab) in classrooms and seeking a prayer space on campus. The faculty board had voted November 2 to ban the niqab on campus. In practice, though, niqab-wearers have since been allowed on campus and in the library but barred from classes and exams.
Habib Kazdaghli, dean of the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanities of Manouba, told Human Rights Watch that the 100 or so protesters on November 28 included both students and non-students. Kazdaghli said that he and other faculty members had been intimidated by the large group of people outside his office and that they had been afraid to leave the building.
On November 29, Kazdaghli decided to deny outsiders access to the campus. However, a group that included non-students forced their way in on November 30 and confronted Kazdaghli, shoving him. These events precipitated a strike by faculty to protest these assaults, halting classes for three days.