On 14 November 2006 paramilitary gunmen uniformed as Iraqi National Police commandos raided a Ministry of Education building in Baghdad. Arriving without warning, they swiftly arrested roughly 100 members of staff whose names were on their list, along with others.
In broad daylight, the paramilitaries handcuffed and blindfolded aging academics, younger professors, secretaries, parents and visitors alike. Then they drove off with the detainees to a clandestine prison, where some suffered bone-breaking torture and an unknown number were killed, according to witnesses. Why were these teachers and intellectuals targeted in such a brutal way? What does their experience mean for academic freedom in Iraq? Tragically this harrowing incident is only the latest in an escalating pattern of violence against Iraqi academics. Prime Minister Maliki declared that it was not a case of terrorism, but a dispute between “militias.” Within days, the government said all detainees had been released after a series of dramatic police raids. Several senior police officers were reportedly arrested and questioned over possible complicity. The Education Ministry also insisted that both Sunnis and Shiites were among those illegally detained. In a letter to officials, EI Secretary General Fred van Leeuwen informed the government of Iraq that Education International would contact the United Nations Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions to request that the growing violence against academics and teachers in Iraq be investigated. Hundreds of academics have been killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in March 2003. The Iraqi Minister of Education has stated that 296 members of education staff were killed in 2005 alone. According to the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs, 180 teachers have been killed since February 2006, and up to 100 have been kidnapped. In his letter Van Leeuwen pointed out these devastating facts and added: “Not only do abductions of teachers constitute serious violations of the right to live and work in a secure environment, but of the right to life itself. Education International does not only refer to the recent mass kidnapping in the Ministry of Higher Education’s scientific research directorate. Abduction and murder ravage families and put at stake the future of Iraq. The killings of teachers and closures of schools punishes the young people and does not give a message of optimism and hope.” Because education is so critical to the future of the country, van Leeuwen warned that the dramatic escalation of violence is prompting a mass exodus of academics and teachers. More than 3,250 teachers have fled Iraq to date. “The resulting massive brain drain of teachers is a catastrophe which affects the reconstruction and nation-building process significantly, and will continue to do so for years to come,” he said. The violence against education institutions and teachers has also prompted a sharp decline in school attendance. According to recent statistics from the Ministry of Education, only about 30 percent of Iraq’s 3.5 million school-aged children are currently attending classes, compared to 75 percent in the previous school year. “Educational institutions and teachers should be supported and given the resources to promote peace and tolerance through education, rather than being targets of violence,” van Leeuwen urged. Education International is not alone in its concern for the safety of Iraqi academics. The Brussels Tribunal, a network of human rights activists, has launched an urgent appeal to save Iraqi academics. Among the more than 10,000 names on their petition are two former UN Assistant Secretaries-General, eminent academics including Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, writers such as Eduardo Galeano and Nobel laureates Dario Fo, José Saramago, J.M. Coetzee and Harold Pinter. For more information, visit: www.brusselstribunal.org