MONTREAL— Across the world, when people protest against unpopular governments, students are often on the front lines. “Students are agents of change,” says Inga Marie Nymo Riseth, president of the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund. “Throughout history, students have always been attacked for this.”
The fund, which receives most of its over $5 million annual budget from the Norwegian government, focuses on helping students in different countries who are persecuted for peacefully expressing opinions that offend those in power.
She joined student leaders from several countries here in Montreal in June on a panel entitled “Protecting Student Expression.” The occasion was the once-in-two-year congress of the Scholars At Risk Network, which helps academics around the world who are jailed or threatened for expressing their views.
In Egypt, students didn’t bother protesting against the rule of former longtime Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak very often—it hardly seemed anything could budge him from power. Then in 2011, Egypt, like several of its neighbors, rose up in mass protests, and Mubarak was forced out.
But today, instead of greater democracy, students face unprecedented repression.
Thousands of students have been jailed for taking part in demonstrations against the current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Since seizing power in a 2013 military coup, his government has cracked down ruthlessly on all opposition to its rule. Students and scholars who have been wrongfully detained were given an award by the Scholars at Risk Network. (See related article “Courage to Think Defender Award Given to Egyptian Scholars and Students.”)
“Students only want a normal life: to get their education and get good jobs,” says a student leader who just graduated from medical school in Egypt and requested anonymity to avoid reprisals. “But now they face a very bad education system and they can’t express themselves in a peaceful way.”
The student leaders shared their experiences and observations, and discussed ways to help their peers in numerous countries who face police batons, jail cells, and worse for speaking out.
One of the panelists, Rackchart Wong-Arthichart, a student activist from Thailand, described how the presence of international observers can sometimes dissuade the authorities from breaking up banned student events. “Just monitoring our activities and demonstrations is very helpful,” he told the meeting.
The meeting’s concerns were brought home just two weeks later when Wong-Arthichart was arrested in Thailand along with 12 other activists while distributing flyers critical of a draft constitution put forward by the military junta that seized power two years ago. They face multiple charges, including “holding a political gathering of five or more people,” which carries a sentence of up to ten years of prison.
In Venezuela, university students have been at the forefront of demonstrations against the government of President Nicolas Maduro. A growing number of critics blame his socialist policies for the country’s deepening crisis—inflation nearing 500 percent and, in recent weeks, food riots.
Student demonstrations in favor of a referendum to recall Maduro have been infiltrated by small groups of government-sponsored thugs who stir up violence, according to Fabio L. Valentini, an economics student and officer of the National Student Movement of Venezuela. He said the government has carried out a campaign of harassment and death threats against student leaders and activists.
To an extent, “the government has achieved its goals,” Valentini told the meeting. “They have made many of the students involved in [earlier] protests afraid to join the protests today.”
In the face of threats and violence by their governments, students have had to come up with novel strategies to keep up their struggles. In Egypt, when security forces detain students, they often demand that the detainees each open their Facebook page “to see if they have anti-Sisi messages,” says the Egyptian student leader, referring to the country’s current president.
“So students erase their Facebook page each time they head out to a demonstration.”
Norwegian students are particularly active in helping their peers who are persecuted in other countries. In 1999, the Student Peace Prize was established on the model of the much better known Nobel Peace Prize, which is also awarded in Norway.
The student prize is awarded every two years by an independent student committee “to students or student organizations working to promote peace, human rights and democracy.”
The last student prize, in 2015, went to Aayat Al-Qurmezi, a student in Bahrain who was expelled from her university and imprisoned for reading a pro-democracy poem in Pearl Square. The poem criticized the rule of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and demanded equal rights for the country’s Shia, who make up 70 percent of the population.
Before her, eight other students and student organizations from Burma, East Timor, Zimbabwe, Colombia, Thailand/Burma, Western Sahara, Croatia, and Iran had received the prize.
The Norwegian students’ assistance fund supports programs at universities, mostly in Latin America and southern Africa, that develop leadership skills on such topics as sexual and reproductive rights and HIV. The fund has also paid for a human rights lawyer to assist Colombia’s national student organization, and for students in various countries to attend international conferences.
Five years ago, the fund began a “Students at Risk” campaign. The group lobbied the government, which ended up accepting the proposal to bring persecuted students from around the world to finish their studies in Norway. A pilot program started last fall with 11 foreign students coming mainly from Africa and the Middle East.
“The idea,” Riseth, the fund’s president told the conference, “is not only to take students out of their country to protect them, but also send a signal that we do not tolerate attacks on students.”