Non-violent activist Professor Bekele Gerba had been held since 2015. Fairfield service-learning students joined the efforts of Scholars at Risk to draw international attention to his plight.
On February 13, news trickled across the globe that leading Oromo opposition leader, Professor Bekele Gerba, and six of his colleagues were released from prison amid anti-government protests and political unrest in Ethiopia.
Professor Bekele Gerba, was a foreign language professor from the University of Addis Ababa, a non-violent activist and deputy leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) at the time of his arrest in December of 2015, when his people, the Oromos, were protesting against government oppression.
Last Spring, Fairfield students enrolled in the service-learning course International Human Rights/Politics Seminar, taught by Janie Leatherman, PhD professor of politics and international studies and Alfred Babo, PhD, collaborated on the case of Professor Gerba, with the organization Scholars at Risk through its Student Advocacy Seminar Program. Scholars at Risk is an international network of higher education institutions and individuals working to protect scholars and promote academic freedom.
The humanitarian action students prepared an advocacy report on Professor Gerba that assisted Scholars at Risk in its work to highlight his case internationally, advocate for him, and endeavor to protect his human rights and ultimately secure his release and safety. Students conducted research on stakeholders such as the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the US Department of State's Bureau of Human Rights, Democracy and Labor, the European Parliament and the African Union. The process, equipped them with skills in research, writing, communication, teamwork and advocacy, and a specialized understanding of human rights violations in the context of higher education.
Fairfield students, with JUHAN, also hosted a “Free Dr. Gerba Week” to illuminate his plight, through social media, a student panel, research symposium, a signed petition and a cupcake giveaway.
Dr. Leatherman said students helped to bring international attention to Professor Gerba’s case, not only in raising student awareness on campus, but through local media coverage of their “cupcake diplomacy” that went viral internationally, reaching Europe and Africa. “We got contacted by other Oromo activists because of the traction that story generated,” Leatherman said.
While Professor Gerba’s supporters included hundreds at Scholars at Risk's 500+ member institutions who also signed letters on his behalf and assisted in raising awareness about his case through social media and other means, Fairfield University is the only participating seminar that worked on Professor Gerba's case. Margaret Coons, Advocacy Associate at Scholars at Risk acknowledged, "Fairfield students' 'cupcake diplomacy' and subsequent press coverage was a creative and effective way of drawing attention to Professor Gerba's situation, and we are grateful for all their hard work. We are of course thrilled that Professor Gerba has been released, and look forward to partnering with Fairfield students again on future cases."
Dr. Leatherman and her students had previously worked with Scholars at Risk on the case of Iranian chemistry professor, Dr. Mohammad Hossein Rafiee, who had been imprisoned in Tehran for 15 months before being released on medical furlough. Fairfield’s research and advocacy were instrumental in moving Dr. Rafiee's case forward.