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Scientists Recognized at the AAAS Annual Meeting

Each year between 1994 and 2006 the Science and Human Rights Program organized a reception at the AAAS Annual Meeting. The reception was used to recognize one or more scientists, who, through action and example, promoted human rights, usually at great personal risk. Our definition of “scientist” was a broad one, including social scientists, health professionals and engineers, as well as natural and physical scientists.


Liu Gang, a Chinese physicist, was imprisoned in 1989 for his involvement in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations on charges of “conspiracy to overthrow the government.” Liu was sentenced to a six-year term. A democracy activist since the mid-1980s, Liu was third on the government’s most wanted list of students. Liu was released from prison in 1996. After constant harassment to himself and his family, Liu was forced to flee China. Liu Gang currently lives in New York where he was continuing his studies at Columbia University.


Wang Juntao, an economist and renowned human rights and a pro-democracy activist, was arrested as he tried to flee to Hong Kong after the Tianamen Square massacre in 1989. Wang is a veteran human rights activist who was first jailed for his activism when he was sixteen. He served as an adviser to Wang Dan and other student leaders of the pro-democracy movement in China in the late 1980s. The Chinese government denounced him as a “black hand” of the student movement. Wang was sentenced to a thirteen-year prison term and spent four-and-a-half years in solitary confinement. He was released from prison in 1994 and traveled to the U.S. to seek medical treatment for hepatitis, which he contracted in prison. Wang Juntao currently resides in New York where he is earning a doctorate in political science at Columbia University.

Vil Mirzayanov, a Russian chemist, was imprisoned in 1993 after publishing articles that revealed illegal chemical weapons experimentation in Russia. He lost his job at the State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology, where he had worked for 26 years. He was released from prison in March 1994 after U.S. scientists initiated a major campaign on his behalf. Vil Mirzayanov currently lives in the United States.


Haluk Gerger, a former assistant professor at the University of Ankara, a well-known intellectual, and a respected writer on nuclear weapons strategy, has been repeatedly imprisoned for the peaceful expression of his opinion. Dr. Gerger is a founding member of the Turkish Human Rights Association. He is an ardent defender of Kurdish rights, although not a Kurd himself. His writings on the issue and his criticism of governmental policies in response to the armed conflict between Kurdish rebels and Turkish security forces in southeast Turkey have led to frequent arrests by the Turkish authorities. Dr. Gerger was released from prison in October 1995 and attended the 1996 AAAS Annual Meeting. Since then, he has been imprisoned twice more for articles he wrote regarding the treatment of Kurds in Turkey.

Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, a Vietnamese endocrinologist, was arrested for his non-violent criticism of Vietnamese authorities. Dr. Que, a graduate of Saigon medical school, was dismissed from his post as Director of Cho-Ray Hospital in 1978 for his criticism of Vietnam’s health care policies. Also in 1978, he was accused of “rebelling against the regime,” and detained for ten years in prison without trial. Dr. Que was released from prison in 1988 and rearrested in 1990 for issuing an appeal to individuals and organizations in Vietnam calling for freedom, democracy, and political pluralism in that country. He was sentenced to twenty years hard labor to be followed by five-years house arrest. Dr. Que was released in an amnesty in 1998. Dr. Nguyen Dan Que lives in Hanoi, where he continues to advocate for democracy in Vietnam.


Dr. Ma Thida, a Burmese surgeon and writer was arrested in 1993 and sentenced to twenty years in prison for the nonviolent expression of her beliefs and her association with Nobel Peace Price winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the founders of Burma/Myanmar’s main political opposition party. In February 1999, Dr. Ma Thida was pardoned and released on humanitarian grounds. Dr. Ma Thida’s health seriously deteriorated while she was in prison. Dr. Ma Thida suffers from endometriosis and other ailments for which she did not receive adequate medical treatment while in detention.

Wang Dan, a history student in China, was among the leaders of the 1989 democracy movement in China. Wang was Number One on the government’s “most wanted” list for his leadership role in the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, for which he spent four years in prison. Upon his release, he resumed his pro-democracy activities and was arrested again in May 1995. After being held for seventeen months incommunicado, Wang was sentenced in a closed trial to eleven years in prison for “conspiring to subvert the government.” The charges were based on articles published in the overseas press, the receipt of donations from abroad, financial assistance received from two US-based organizations, and participation in a correspondence course offered by the University of California-Berkeley. Wang Dan was released from prison on medical parole and went to the U.S. in April 1998.


Dr. Alemayehu Teferra, a civil engineer and former president of Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, was the only university president ever to be voted into office by the faculty. Dr. Alemayehu was arrested on 2 April 1993 on accusations that he was part of the Red Terror campaign of the former government despite the fact that authorities absolved him of any crime in 1991. In addition, Dr. Alemayehu is among 42 professors dismissed from Addis Ababa University in April 1993 for criticizing the government when security forces used excessive violence during an anti-government student demonstration, which resulted in the death of at least one student. Dr. Alemayehu was released from jail on 9 June 2003. In a letter to AAAS, Dr. Alemayehu stated, “I have no doubt that your effort has made an important contribution towards my release.”

Dr. Woldeyes Asrat, a renowned surgeon from Ethiopia and a former professor and dean of the medical faculty at Addis Abada University, was sentenced to a five-and-a-half prison term in July 1994 for allegedly inciting violence for political ends. There is well-documented evidence that demonstrated Dr. Asrat’s commitment to non-violent activity. The charges against him appear to have been politically motivated. Dr. Asrat was released from prison in December 1998. His health significantly worsened during detention. He suffered from a heart condition and diabetes, conditions that were worsened by delays in providing him with adequate medical attention. Dr. Asrat Woldeyes died on 14 May 1999.


Alexandr Nikitin, a Russian engineer, was charged in 1996 with high treason and divulging state secrets for co-authoring a report for the Norwegian-based Bellona Foundation that documented the environmental dangers posed by the abandoned nuclear submarines of the Russian Northern Fleet in the Kola Peninsula. The charges were based on secret retroactive acts and legislation, the application of which was contrary to the Russian Constitution. The St. Petersburg City Court acquitted Alexandr Nikitin in December 1999. The Prosecutor General appealed this decision to the Supreme Court, which dismissed the appeal in September 2000, bringing the criminal case against Nikitin to a close after five long years. In November 2000, the St Petersburg City Court ruled that Russia’s nuclear minister, Yevgeny Adamov, has to pay Alexandr Nikitin 10,000 roubles (an equivalent of $350) for publicly calling him a spy.


Dr. Sergey Piontkovski, a marine biologist from Ukraine, was accused of revealing state secrets for publishing his unclassified research on plankton and illegal currency transactions for accepting grants from foreign funding organizations in October 1999. Dr. Piontkovski’s case was taken up by the international scientific community, human rights advocates, and friends and colleagues, who organized letter-writing campaigns, shared information on a special website set up for the purpose, and began raising funds for his legal defense. These collective efforts were successful. The authorities eventually dropped the charges against him, returned his passport, and permitted him to leave Ukraine with his family in March 2000. Dr. Piontkovski is now living in the United States, where he is currently associated with Marine Sciences Research Center at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Dr. Sergey Piontkovski believes that the international attention and actions on his behalf were largely responsible for his release.


Flora Brovina, a pediatrician, poet and human rights activist. An ethnic Albanian from Kosovo, Dr. Brovina was arrested by Serbian authorities in April 1999 and sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment in November 1999, for her support of self-determination for Kosovo, advocacy of peaceful and nonviolent change, and humanitarian activities. During the NATO bombing in the spring of 1999, she elected to remain in Pristina and provide medical care to local people. Flora Brovina was released from prison on November 2 on the orders of Vojislav Kostunica, the new president of Yugoslavia.


Dr. Moncef Marzouki, a medical doctor and professor of public health, has faced systematic harassment and intimidation by the government of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in reprisal for his human rights activism. Dr. Marzouki is the former president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights (1989-1994) and is currently the spokesperson for the National Council on Liberties in Tunisia. In 1994, after declaring himself the opposition candidate to President Ben Ali, he was imprisoned for four months. In 2001, he was convicted on criminal charges of “spreading false information intended to disturb the public order” for circulating a private paper that was critical of Tunisia’s human rights practices during a regional meeting of human rights defenders in Morocco. Dr. Marzouki remarked that of all the harassment he has dealt with, “the worst sanctions were professional, destroying a life’s work.” Since 1992, the Tunisian government deprived him of his right to work as a professor of medicine in a public university and teaching hospital. In 1994, the Tunisian government shut down the Center for Community Medicine, a clinic he founded, which provided medical care in the poor suburbs of Sousse, a city 100 kilometers south of Tunis. The clinic also worked to teach medical students about the role of community medicine in helping poorer populations. In October 2001, the Tunisian government finally suspended the criminal charges against Dr. Marzouki. Faced with no source of income and increased personal repression, he made the difficult decision to leave Tunisia to accept a position at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Paris at Bobigny.


Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim of Cairo, Egypt. Dr. Ibrahim, a sociologist, is the founder and director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, a Cairo-based organization that conducts research on democracy, civil society, and minority rights in Egypt and the Arab region. He has been a courageous and moderate voice for human rights in the Arab world.


The Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala, FAFG). The FAFG investigates mass human rights abuses, focusing on the recovery and identification of victims killed and buried in clandestine gravesites during Guatemala’s 36-year internal armed conflict. The FAFG uses forensic anthropology and archeology to search for the estimated 200,000 lives that were lost. Since 1992, FAFG has carried out 191 exhumations of mass grave sites. FAFG is a non-governmental organization that functions in the absence of an official government exhumation program. Exhumations have played a critical role in providing forensic investigation teams with evidence to scientifically document massacres perpetrated by the Guatemalan military.


Arjan Erkel, a Dutch humanitarian aid worker who was the Head of Mission for the French medical aid association Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Dagestan. Erkel was abducted on 12 August 2002 by three gunmen in Makhachkala, Dagestan. Erkel was in the region providing medical assistance and humanitarian aid to displaced people from the neighboring region of Chechnya. The Program issued urgent appeals on the AAASHRAN about Erkel’s kidnapping and urged members of the scientific community to pressure the government to investigate the case, ensure Erkel’s safety and to hold those responsible accountable. Arjan Erkel was freed in 2004 after 20 months in captivity.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), is an international humanitarian aid organization that provides emergency medical assistance to populations in danger in more than 80 countries. MSF plays an important role in conflict situations by raising awareness of crisis situations and serving as a witness to speak out, either through public or private channels about the plight of individuals in area of political instability. MSF seeks to alleviate human suffering, to protect life and health and to restore and ensure respect for the human beings and their fundamental human rights.


Igor Sutyagin, who studied physics and history, was arrested in October 1999 on charges of espionage related to a study he conducted on military-civilian relations in Russia. Despite the lack of evidence supporting the charge, the Russian government has convicted Dr. Sutyagin, and he has now spent more than four years in jail. International scientific organizations and human rights organizations continue to seek his release.