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U of T student’s detention abroad raises issue of schools’ responsibilities

University of Toronto’s St. George Campus.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

The case of an international student at the University of Toronto detained in Tajikistan is raising alarm about academic freedom and the responsibility of universities to protect students working in unstable countries.

The student, Alexander Sodiqov, is a citizen of Tajikistan who has been studying in Canada on a student visa. Legally, the Canadian government doesn't owe him any protections, but some in the academic community are arguing that officials have a moral obligation to ensure his safe release.

The case raises questions about what Canada owes international students, who make up a growing percentage of university students and are a target of government and university recruitment efforts.

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Mr. Sodiqov's friends and colleagues are calling on the university and the government to act. While the detainment in Egypt of Al Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy is complicated by dual Canadian-Egyptian citizenship, Mr. Sodiqov's ties to Canada are more tenuous. He has been studying here for three years, and has a one-year-old daughter who is a Canadian citizen.

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs refused to discuss the case. However, university officials said the federal government had sent a diplomatic letter to the Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while Freedom House, a U.S.-based advocacy group, said they were aware that the Canadian and British embassies in Central Asia had been very active on the case.

"As universities become more internationalized we're likely to see a greater proportion of foreign-born students, students who have foreign passports, travelling around the world," said professor Ed Schatz, Mr. Sodiqov's research supervisor in Toronto. "What exactly is the obligation of the Canadian government, or of institutions such as the University of Toronto, to students who are carrying other kinds of passports? That's a big conversation that needs to happen."

There are more than 116,000 international students attending Canadian universities, and their numbers are climbing. More than 1,600 scholars from all over the world have signed a petition demanding Mr. Sodiqov's release.

Mr. Sodiqov, 31, was arrested by secret police in the Gorno-Badakhshan region of Tajikistan. Reports have surfaced that he has been charged with treason and espionage, but no one has been able to reach him, and nothing has been confirmed by Tajik officials.

Mr. Sodiqov was conducting research on conflict resolution on behalf of the University of Exeter in Britain, interviewing an opposition leader when he was arrested.

"Alex and I took precautions and discussed the possibility that we may be asked not to conduct our research right now as there was some political sensitivity in the region," professor John Heathershaw, Mr. Sodiqov's supervisor at Exeter, wrote in an e-mail. "We also discussed the possibility of violence and the need to withdraw from the region if that occurred. However, we never imagined we would be accused of spying."

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Many students at the University of Toronto were disappointed when two days after Mr. Sodiqov's arrest the university released a short and softly worded statement. It encouraged "authorities in Tajikistan to ensure full protection of Mr. Sodiqov's rights."

A stronger statement was released Monday. "The detention of an academic researcher cuts to the core of the mission of the university; to produce and disseminate scholarly knowledge in an atmosphere of open expression and intellectual freedom," it read. "… The university calls upon governmental authorities in Tajikistan to work actively toward resolving this matter."

Professors within the political science department have been reaching out to government contacts in Canada and the United States. The University of Toronto is hosting a discussion on the implications of Mr. Sodiqov's detainment on Friday.

The Tajik government is using Mr. Sodiqov's arrest to distract from internal problems and blame outside forces, according to Susan Corke, a human-rights advocate at Freedom House. There have been recent riots and violence against civilians in the region where he was arrested and Mr. Sodiqov's arrest is going to have "a real chilling effect on research and journalism in Tajikistan and Central Asia," she wrote in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.

"How the university responds in Alex's case will set a precedent for international students," said Semra Sevi, a University of Toronto graduate student and friend of Mr. Sodiqov's."A case like this … shows the limitations on what a university will do and how far they're willing to go."

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About the Author
Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

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