Aberystwyth under criticism after new ties to Azerbaijani university revealed

Pro-Vice Chancellor John Grattan

Aberystwyth’s Pro-Vice Chancellor John Grattan (left) in a meeting with Azerbaijani officials

ABERYSTWYTH University has come under heavy criticism after it has emerged that the University has entered into an agreement with an academic institution run by the government of Azerbaijan.

The “Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy” is part of the foreign ministry of the central Asian state, ranked as “not free” by Freedom House’s 2013 “Freedom in the World” report and generally regarded as a dictatorship by Western standards, with poor levels of personal and academic freedom.

Details of the agreement are scarce, but it appears from a report on the News.Az website that a memorandum between the two institutions “envisages cooperation in all fields of scientific exchange, as well as book and publishing exchange”. It continues: “The two higher educational institutions will also hold joint researches, gatherings, exhibitions and meetings”.

The commitment to academic co-operation has prompted surprise amongst academics and students at Aberystwyth, as Azerbaijan has a very poor reputation for academic freedom – the ability of academics to speak and write freely, without control by the state.

According to a report by the Scholars At Risk Network, the independent Azad Fikir University (Free Thought University) was shut down by local police in April 2013 in connection with an investigation into an opposition student group, after which the University’s lease on their building was terminated, leaving them homeless for the upcoming academic year. According to the Network, AFU is funded largely by international organizations and the US and UK governments, and is “dedicated to promoting democracy and human rights” in Azerbaijan.

International human rights organisation Freedom House devote a section of their 2012 report to academic freedom in the country:

“The authorities have linked academic freedom to political activity in recent years. Some professors and teachers have reported being dismissed for links to opposition groups, and students have faced threats of lowered grades for similar reasons. In April 2011, a student was expelled from Baku State University and banned from further study after participating in protests, and a university professor was demoted after criticizing the arrest of a youth activist.”

The 2013 report by Freedom House describes Azerbaijan as “not an electoral democracy” where elections are considered “neither free nor fair” by international observers. Freedom House describe corruption as “widespread”, and “critical institutions”, including the media and judiciary, as “largely subservient” to the president and ruling party.

Amnesty International’s 2013 Annual Report says the Azerbaijani government “continue to intimidate and imprison people and groups who criticized the government”. According to Amnesty, peaceful protests were “banned and dispersed by the police with excessive use of force”, and torture, especially in police custody, was “frequently reported”.

Amnesty also describe how the government have “targeted human rights defenders and journalists for their work” and “subjected them to intimidation, harassment and arrest”, citing several cases where democracy activists and journalists have been persecuted for their work.

Aberystwyth University could not be reached for comment at the time of publication