Two Iranian PhD students have taken the Norwegian state to court after being expelled from the country on suspicion of gathering knowledge that could "aid Iran’s nuclear program."
Hamideh Kaffash and Shanin Akbarnejad both enrolled at the prestigious Norwegian University of Science and Technology, NTNU, in the autumn of 2014. Both were pursuing PhDs in metallurgy, planning to spend three years in the northern city of Trondheim.
Six months into their studies came a letter from the Norwegian immigration authorities, telling them to pack their bags and return to Iran within days.
"I got a letter from the immigration office that I have to leave Norway because they think we will gain some knowledge which might lead to making of mass destructive weapons,” says Hamideh Kaffash.
"It was really ridiculous because my field and my project has nothing to do with mass destruction weapons. My PhD is reducing CO2 emission in ferromanganese production."
Ferromanganese is an alloy which is already produced in large quantities in Iran. Kaffash's PhD focused on making the production process more environmentally friendly.
More than 100 refusals
Hamideh Kaffash and Shanin Akbarnejad are among more than 50 Iranian students who have been refused permission to stay in Norway in recent years. More than 60 other applicants have been stopped before even entering the country.
The two students say they believe Norwegian authorities are making decisions based either on misunderstandings or nationality alone. That is why they have now taken the Norwegian state to court to have their expulsion overturned.
"They have been given no explanation as to how this research has anything to do with programs for weapons of mass destruction in Iran,” says the students' Norwegian lawyer, Brynjulf Risnes.
"We have looked at the practice of countries like Holland, Germany, Denmark, and we see a far more relaxed attitude towards this issue. Norwegian security police is far more active and all the time warning universities against Iranian students,” he says.
In 2006 the UN imposed sanctions against Iran after the country refused to suspend its uranium enrichment program. The sanctions also cover the export of knowledge which could help that program.
Norwegian immigration authorities acted on advice from the Norwegian Police Security Service, PST, when they decided to deny Kaffash and Akbarnejad the right to stay.
"What we see is that some countries' authorities send their students to countries like Norway in order to gain knowledge which can be misused to develop weapons of mass destruction. We have seen a strong increase of the number of students who apply for problematic studies,” Arne Christian Haugstoyl, a PST spokesperson, told Norwegian TV2 before the trial began. The PST has refused repeated requests from DW for an interview or comment.
Both Kaffash and Akbarnejad strongly deny any allegations that their PhD studies could in any way aid Iran's weapons programs. They get the full backing from NTNU, the university they are no longer allowed to attend.
"We think we have established PhD programs which are well on the safe side of the UN and EU sanctions towards Iran,” says Jostein Mardalen.
He heads the department of materials science and engineering at NTNU, and was responsible for both students' PhD programs.
"These two students have other offers from other universities around the world and they are in a position where they could choose. They chose to come to NTNU because they think that that was the best place in the world that they could carry out a PhD degree.”
NTNU has several Nobel laureates as alumni, and is considered world-leading in some engineering subjects.
The last day of the trial brought by the two Iranian students heard secret evidence from an unnamed PST operator. Only the judge and a specially appointed lawyer with security clearance were allowed to hear that evidence.
Whether they win or loose, this secrecy means Hamideh Kaffash and Shanin Akbarnejad might never know the real reason for the court's decision.
No matter what the outcome of the trial will be, Hamideh Kaffash believes it has been a battle worth fighting.
"I was not the first Iranian student who was rejected, but I hope that I will be the last one. I took the case to the court because Iranian students need to have an order from the judge, so that PST will not repeat this ridiculous decision again,” she says.
A verdict in the case is expected later this summer.