‘Harassment allegations inconsistent with KU committee findings’

ICCBS director accused of harassment after PhD candidate died by suicide in August

Safdar Rizvi September 08, 2020


A harassment committee investigating a suicide case at the University of Karachi has found the allegations against KU's International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences (ICCBS) director Dr Iqbal Chaudhry to be contradictory with information collected during the investigation. However, allegations have been levelled on the sincerity of the committee itself.

The student

NA* a doctoral student at the ICCBS reportedly died by suicide on August 17. She had joined the ICCBS for their MPhil programme in October 2005 and studied with Dr Amin Soria's research group. Completing her courses in 2007, she applied for a change of research supervisor, following which Dr Soria was replaced by Dr Chaudhry as the supervisor.

From October 2009 to June 2010, NA was in France for training, and her MPhil was converted to a PhD in 2011 after approval by KU's Board of Advance Research.

In 2013, NA applied for a six-month extension for her PhD before the board, which had accepted a separate application allowing for a change of her thesis topic the same year. However, her application for renewal of admission in 2014 was not accepted, and NA was asked to submit her thesis within three months, which she was unable to do.

In 2017, the board received another application to accept NA's delayed thesis based on medical and financial issues. This year again, NA applied for an extension in her registration on the basis of health problems.

The committee

A harassment committee was formed after allegations of sexual and other kinds of harassment emerged on social media against Dr Chaudhry, on the demand of Pakistan Peoples Party MNA Shahida Rehmani.

The ICCBS reportedly rejected the allegations soon after the news broke out terming them 'baseless and unfounded.'

According to the National Assembly's legislation, the harassment committee of any varsity has to have three permanent members - a faculty member, a non-teaching staff member and a convener.

KU's harassment committee for this case comprises KU deputy registrar Zia Shaikh, Professor Aqila Amber Malik and the dean for the social sciences faculty, Dr Nasreen Alam. Besides, Assistant Professor Dr Mohsin and MNA Shahida Rehmani were added as observers.

When The Express Tribune contacted Rehmani, she said she had first been appointed as a permanent member, and then via a notification issued later, was changed to an 'observer.'

The lawmaker claimed she attended one meeting as an observer and felt that there were some elements trying to save Dr Chaudhry, prompting her to withdraw from her position. She would notify KU's vice chancellor of her decision, and separately, ask the Sindh chief minister for a judicial inquiry on the matter, she said.

The findings

According to the committee, a meeting with NA's mother and brother led them to conclude that NA was suffering from mental illness and undergoing treatment for the same at a local psychiatric hospital.

NA's mother, as quoted by the committee, said the deceased would complain of feeling sick at the smell of cooking and would not let the family cook food at home. According to the committee, the deceased's mother had stepped out to get something to eat when NA committed suicide.

According to the committee, the family further said that NA was disturbed after her father went missing some years ago but had never complained regarding her PhD.

Earlier, the committee recorded the statements of Dr Chaudhry and two of NA's colleagues.

Dr Chaudhry denied the allegations against him and told the committee about NA's time at KU - from the admission in the PhD programme, the move abroad on scholarship, and her interest in thesis writing, according to the committee.

The committee cited NA's colleagues, namely Dr Humera and Dr Faraz, as stating that NA went to France for research but couldn't complete it, leaving her disheartened. The committee is expected to next visit the ICCBS and the psychiatric hospital where NA was under treatment.

Meanwhile, the KU administration told The Express Tribune that it had set up an independent committee for the inquiry, adding that it was uninvolved in the probe itself.

*Initials used to protect identity of the deceased

Published in The Express Tribune, September 8th, 2020.


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