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Source: Washington Post

Jul 6, 2023

Israeli graduate student abducted in Iraq by Iran-linked militia

By Mikhail Klimentov

Elizabeth Tsurkov, an Israeli-Russian dual citizen and a graduate student at Princeton University, is being held captive by a Shiite militia, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Wednesday. Tsurkov was conducting doctoral research in Baghdad when she went missing in March.

“Elizabeth Tsurkov is still alive,” the prime minister’s office said, “and we hold Iraq responsible for her safety and well-being.”

Though close confidants — including Tsurkov’s family and some of her co-workers — learned of the researcher’s abduction in late March, Israel’s statement is among the first public acknowledgments of her capture. The D.C.-based New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, where Tsurkov is a fellow, said in a statement that Tsurkov’s family requested that the news not be publicized in hopes of quickly and quietly negotiating a release.

“Our sister is an academic, a world-renowned expert on the Middle East in general and Syria and Iraq in particular,” her family said in a statement. “She was kidnapped in the middle of Baghdad, and we see the Iraqi government as directly responsible for her safety. We ask for her immediate release from this unlawful detention.”

Israel’s statement came after foreign media began to report on Tsurkov’s kidnapping, according to Israeli officials cited in reports by local media.

Israeli media reports said Russian and Israeli officials were cooperating in efforts to secure the researcher’s release.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, however, said Thursday he had no information about Tsurkov being taken hostage. "We’ll definitely inquire about this case at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

Tsurkov was kidnapped from the Baghdad neighborhood of Karrada, a busy district filled with cafes and restaurants, where she had been conducting interviews, officials say. She had undergone back surgery in an Iraqi hospital days earlier.

Israel identified Tsurkov’s captors as the Shiite militia Kataib Hezbollah, a group closely affiliated with Iran which has been linked in other kidnap attempts involving foreigners.

“There are parts of the Middle East where [Tsurkov’s] very identity places her at grave risk,” wrote New Lines Magazine, which is published by the Institute, in a statement on Wednesday. “But Liz is committed to a specific style of granular, hyperlocal research that requires fieldwork, and she never seems frightened of anything. She stayed in Iraq.”

Gisha, an Israeli NGO at which Tsurkov previously worked, characterized the academic on Twitter as an advocate “for the human rights and the well being of Palestinians in Gaza.”

Tsurkov entered Iraq with her Russian passport to conduct research for her doctoral studies at Princeton, according to the Israeli prime minister’s office. Iraq’s parliament has criminalized relations with Israel or Israeli citizens, citing its support for the Palestinian cause.

Her family said in its statement that she had been in Iraq to conduct research for her degree at Princeton’s comparative politics department.

When asked about its role and knowledge of Tsurkov’s trip, a spokesman for the University said they could not share information concerning student records, citing school policy.

“Elizabeth is a valued member of the Princeton University community,” said Michael Hotchkiss, assistant vice president for communications at Princeton. “We are deeply concerned for her safety and well-being, and we are eager for her to be able to rejoin her family and resume her studies.”

In November 2021, another Princeton doctoral candidate, Xiyue Wang, filed a lawsuit against the university, alleging “reckless, willful, wanton, and grossly negligent acts” during a three-year period in which he was imprisoned in Tehran on charges of espionage. The student was conducting academic research there, something he said his faculty had encouraged, despite the risks.

“The Princeton community should be asking a lot of questions about the university’s research & travel & protection policies,” said Dani Gibert, an academic whose work focuses on hostage-taking practices, in a tweet.

Robyn Dixon in Riga, Latvia contributed to this report.

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