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Sex assault centre director replaced over letter questioning alleged Hamas rapes

The president of the University of Alberta says the school has replaced its sexual assault centre director over the centre's endorsement of an open letter that questions the validity of sexual assault claims against Hamas during its deadly incursion into Israel last month. A jogger runs past the University of Alberta Butter Dome in Edmonton, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

EDMONTON — The president of the University of Alberta says the school has replaced the director of its sexual assault centre over its endorsement of an open letter that questions the validity of sexual assault claims against Hamas during its deadly incursion into Israel last month.

Bill Flanagan issued a statement on Saturday saying the director's personal views "do not in any way represent those of the University of Alberta, and the use of the centre's name in endorsing the letter was "improper and unauthorized." 

A spokeswoman for the university confirms the letter Flanagan referred to criticizes Canadian political leaders for what it described as being complicit in Israel's "killing" of Palestinians in Gaza.

It also criticizes NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, claiming he "repeated the unverified accusation that Palestinians were guilty of sexual violence."

Israeli authorities have  said they are investigating several cases of sexual assault and rape during Hamas' Oct. 7 attack that killed an estimated 1,200 people. 

On Tuesday, Israel's national police chief showed a small group of international reporters video testimony from an eyewitness at a music festival in southern Israel who described watching another woman being violently sexually assaulted by multiple people before she was shot in the head. 

"The recent improper and unauthorized use of the name of the University of Alberta’s Sexual Assault Centre in endorsing an open letter has raised understandable concerns from members of our community and the public," Flanagan said in the statement.

"Effective immediately, the director of the centre is no longer employed by the university. The university has appointed a new interim director of the Sexual Assault Centre."

Flanagan also noted the University of Alberta stands against racism and hatred, adding it recognizes "the historical and ongoing harms of antisemitism."

The open letter begins with "We, the undersigned, residing in so-called Canada." In addition to demanding an immediate ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict, it also calls on parliamentarians to both resign and demand Israel "free all Palestinian prisoners" and "lift its siege on Gaza."

The University of Alberta Sexual Assault Centre is included among a list of groups at the end that endorse the letter.

The centre has not responded to a request for comment from the Canadian Press.

The university's web page says the centre "provides drop-in crisis intervention support, long-term psychotherapy, and comprehensive anti-sexual violence education to the campus community."

Flanagan apologized for the "hurt and distress this issue has caused."

"I understand that this event has been profoundly hurtful and may have compromised the trust of individuals in our community. I also recognize the significant potential negative impact given the critical nature of the centre’s work," he said.

"The services provided by the university, particularly those supporting the well-being and health of community members, must be open and welcoming to all individuals in our diverse community."

Flanagan's response follows an earlier one from the university on Friday, which said the school was "aware of this issue and has already taken steps to address the matter."

Prior to the announcement that the director had been replaced, a spokesperson for Alberta's advanced education minister said it was taking concerns about the letter seriously and the government condemned antisemitism in any form.

"On-campus sexual assault centres play an important role in providing students and staff with confidential and compassionate supports," the statement from Rajan Sawhney's office said.

"The University of Alberta has a responsibility and duty to address any actions made by the Sexual Assault Centre."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2023.

--With files from Bill Graveland in Calgary and AP

Rob Drinkwater, The Canadian Press

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