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Award-winning photographer returns honorary doctorate to UK over university’s ties to Israel

DHAKA: Prominent Bangladeshi photographer and photojournalist Shahidul Alam has returned his honorary doctorate from the University of the Arts London citing the institution’s partnership with Israel and efforts to quell pro-Palestinian student protests.

Time magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, Alam, 69, has received numerous awards for his work documenting human rights abuses and political upheaval across Bangladesh for more than three decades. In 2003, he became the first black person to chair the World Press Photo jury.

He was awarded an honorary doctorate from UAL in 2022 for his contributions to the civil rights and social justice movements through photography.

On Sunday he announced the decision to return his degree, saying the protesting students accuse the university of being “a willing accomplice to the ongoing regime of occupation, apartheid and genocide” and that he can no longer be associated with UAL.

“Universities must be places of critical thinking, diverse opinions and free expression. A university that suppresses legitimate dissent goes against what I believe universities should stand for,” Alam told Arab News on Tuesday.

“A university that passionately condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but is conspicuously silent in the face of genocide, is hypocritical in its approach to human rights. As a human rights defender, I could not continue to effectively support this position while retaining this award.”

For months, UAL students have called for the university to call for a ceasefire in Gaza and divest from Israel and Israel-affiliated organizations.

Having previously warned protesters against using the phrase “from the river to the sea”, the UAL recently changed course and said it supported free speech, but would not meet the students’ demands.

“I hope that the UAL administration, through my action, realizes that the world is watching and that the distance between what they profess and what they practice is being laid bare. I hope UAL students feel they are not alone,” Alam said.

“The students are the ones who fought for justice. They took risks and faced persecution. It is important that all freedom-loving people are at their side.”

Israel’s assault on Gaza, which began in October, has killed more than 36,400 Palestinians and injured more than 82,000 others, while thousands remain missing under the rubble. The Israeli army has blocked supplies of water, food and aid to the territory, bringing more than 2 million inhabitants of the besieged enclave to the brink of famine.

“As someone who personally experienced occupation and genocide, I could identify with the persecution that Palestinians faced,” Alam said, referring to the ethnic cleansing of Bangladeshis during Bangladesh’s fight for independence from Pakistan in 1971 .

“What is happening now is happening on my watch. I could never forgive myself for having taken the wrong side of history, which I would have done by remaining silent.”

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