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Human rights a thorn in the side of the International Mathematical Union: the case of Azat Miftakov

By Ahmed Abbes and Cédric Villani

At the end of September, the International Mathematical Union (IMU) will celebrate its centenary with great pomp in Strasbourg, the city where it was created in 1920. The event, entitled “Mathematics without Borders,” has been postponed for one year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “The centennial of the foundation is a moment to reflect on the long and varied history of international cooperation of mathematicians and show that the modern IMU seeks to include mathematicians from all countries,” announce the organizers.

The IMU oversees and convenes the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) every four years, which is the largest congress for mathematics and at which prestigious prizes are awarded, including the Fields medals. The next Congress will take place in St Petersburg in July 2022. The Russian government has pledged to grant visa-free entry to mathematicians from all countries, which seems to have tipped the scales in favor of St Petersburg in its bid against Paris. However, the ideal of “Mathematics without Borders” will not be achieved in this ICM. Several colleagues have already expressed strong reluctance to travel to Russia, whose government violates human rights and suppresses fundamental freedoms, including members of the LGBTQ community and Ukrainian mathematicians. They will not be the only ones who cannot attend the festivities. The young Russian mathematician Azat Miftakhov will not participate either. He will probably be imprisoned in the correctional colony number 17 in Omutninsk in Kirov province, following an iniquitous judgment.

Miftakhov’s doctoral studies at Moscow State University were interrupted in February 2019, when he was arrested by police and charged with manufacturing explosives. At the police station he was tortured, but after three days the court threw out the case for lack of evidence. He was released but then rearrested before leaving the police station; this time he was charged with having participated in a plot more than a year earlier to break a window at an office of President Putin’s United Russia Party. Miftakhov pleaded not guilty, but this January 18, 2021, a Moscow court pronounced a six-year sentence in a penal colony, on the basis of testimony by two secret “witnesses” — one of whom claimed to have identified the masked Miftakhov by his “expressive brows,” and who died several months before the trial. The other two defendants, who admitted their guilt while denying that Miftakhov was involved in the incident, received suspended sentences of between two and four years.

The Russian human rights organization “Memorial” recognized Miftakhov’s political prisoner status as early as 2019.  Two petitions in his support had been published by the time of his January sentencing: one in Russia had gathered more than 86000 signatures, while a second petition was signed by over 3,400 mathematicians from 15 countries. Before the verdict, academicians, professors, and corresponding members of the Russian Academy of Sciences had published an open letter calling on the court to release Miftakhov. Human Rights Watch declared after the verdict that “Azat Miftakhov’s conviction is clearly unjust and unfair, and authorities should immediately and unconditionally overturn it.” 

Mathematicians around the world were shocked by the court’s decision.  Just before the court announced the sentence in January, 47 mathematicians sent a letter to the St Petersburg ICM Organizing Committee asking them to take an active position on this case. The Hadamard Doctoral School of Mathematics at Paris-Saclay University issued a statement on March 4, 2021 naming Azat Miftakhov an honorary student and inviting him to complete his doctorate in Paris once he is released. Many professional associations, including the national mathematical societies in the US, UK, France, Brazil, Italy, and Spain, have issued public statements expressing their concern about his case. 

A committee of mathematicians was formed last January to defend Azat Miftakhov. It organized several actions, including the Azat Miftakhov Day on June 16, 2021, which once again demonstrated the strong solidarity of the international mathematical community with Azat.

A few weeks later, on August 1st, Azat Mifatkhov was  moved to the correctional colony number 17 in Omutninsk in Kirov Province, which is known for the mistreatment and torture of prisoners. He was first assigned to hard physical labor in a woodworking shop, consisting in cleaning sawdust from under the sawmill. Later, he informed his wife that his working conditions have improved somewhat and he now “carries boards instead of sawdust,” which, according to him, is much easier. He described his life in the penal colony in detail in a personal letter to his wife. “At the entrance to the camp, almost all of my clothes were not allowed through. They left me only socks, underpants, gloves and thermal underwear (…) the same with books: all my books were taken, supposedly for a check” he wrote. 

Despite the strong support of the mathematical community, one voice is conspicuously lacking in its support for Azat, namely the voice of the International Mathematical Union. Although the IMU expressed, in rather conditional terms, concern about his fate in the past, it still has not called for his release. On August 23, 2021, the Azat Miftakhov Committee, supported by 322 mathematicians including Fields Medal and Abel Prize winners, and 4 mathematical societies, sent a letter to the IMU Executive Committee regarding Azat’s case. “It is now time for the IMU to follow the position adopted by the international mathematical community it represents and to call for the immediate and unconditional release of Azat Miftakhov” they wrote. “As the IMU’s partner in the organization of the next ICM in July 2022 in St Petersburg, the Russian government cannot ignore such a call,” they added.  To date, the IMU Executive Committee has not responded to this letter.

It is not the first time the IMU has faced blatant human rights abuses. The 1982 ICM was initially planned in Warsaw. But following General Jaruzelski’s coup d’état in Poland in December 1981, a state of emergency was declared and thousands of activists were thrown into prison or camps, including several mathematicians. The IMU decided in April 1982 to postpone the ICM. It was finally held in August 1983 after the release of the imprisoned mathematicians and the lifting of the curfew. 

This famous historical case should have inspired the IMU Executive Committee to work to obtain the release of our young colleague. Instead, it continues to ignore the support calls issued by the international mathematical community. In doing so, the IMU Executive Committee may jeopardize the upcoming ICM; attending the congress in St Petersburg while Azat is arbitrarily detained will pose a serious dilemma for the entire mathematical community.

Ahmed Abbes, mathematician, Director of research at CNRS, IHES, Paris

Cédric Villani, mathematician, Laureate of the Fields Medal (2010), Université Lyon 1 Claude Bernard, Member of the French Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy and Member of the French National Assembly

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