On August 20, Omid Kokabee marked his 33rd birthday in jail. The physicist, who is currently being held in Tehran’s Evin Prison, is serving a 10-year sentence on charges of “communicating with a hostile government” and “illegal earnings.” It is believed he is also being punished for refusing to work on Iran’s nuclear program.
Kokabee, who had been working abroad for several years, was arrested on January 30, 2011 while trying to board a flight to the United States after visiting family. He was working at the University of Texas at Austin at the time of his arrest. Despite repeated calls for his release from campaign groups, including Amnesty International and prominent members of the international scientific community, he remains in prison and is reported to be suffering from numerous health issues.
When the nuclear deal was signed in Vienna on July 14, human rights advocates expressed hopes that improved relations between Iran and world powers could also signal a move toward positive change in the human rights situation in the country. Soon after the deal was signed, the Committee of Concerned Scientists, which campaigns for academic freedom and the rights of scientists around the world, made a fresh appeal for his release, asking for Iranian scientists to come forward in support of Kokabee and to use their influence to persuade the Iranian government to free him.
“Omid Kokabee is a victim of the nuclear stand-off between Iran and the West,” says Eugene M. Chudnovsky, distinguished professor of physics and astronomy at Lehman College and the City University of New York Graduate School and Co-Chair of the Committee of Concerned Scientists. “Influential Iranian scientists that have been directly or indirectly involved in the nuclear negotiations, like Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, and Mohammad Javad Larijani, director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics and the head of the Human Rights Council of the Judiciary, know that Omid Kokabee is innocent. They either do not care or they have no power to achieve his release. Both possibilities are scary in the light of the trust we need to develop between the two sides.” In February, Larijani told the Iranian Students’ News Agency that he hoped Kokabee would be released soon, but since the statement there has been no progress.
In 2014, Omid Kokabee was awarded the Andrei Sakharov Prize from the American Physical Society for “his courage in refusing to use his physics knowledge to work on projects that he deemed harmful to humanity, in the face of extreme physical and psychological pressure.”
In October 2014, 33 Nobel Physics Prize laureates joined the campaign to free Kokabee, writing to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to call for his release. “We delivered the Nobel Laureate letters together with thousands of other petition signatures and letters from activists to the Iran Mission to the UN in New York in late October 2014, at the same time the UN Special Rapporteur on Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, was presenting his report to the UN,” says Elise Auerbach, Amnesty International USA’s Iran expert.
Following this, Iran’s Supreme Court ruled on Omid Kokabee’s sentence, stating there was no basis for the conviction. Its statement said “political differences with other states do not constitute hostility,” so even if there was any evidence to suggest that Kokabee had been in a position to provide information to the United States or any other country — and there is not — according to the Supreme Court, the charge of “communicating with a hostile government” should be thrown out. But, on January 7, 2015, a Revolutionary Court reinstated the sentence.
Under Iranian law, a prisoner can request conditional leave after a third of their sentence has been served. Authorities have refused to grant Kokabee leave, despite the fact that he has served almost half of his sentence. He has been denied access to his lawyer and been held in solitary confinement in harsh conditions for almost a year: according to information accessed by those working on the campaign to free him, Kokabee and other prisoners are denied fresh air or regular showers. Kokabee is said to be suffering from chronic stomach pains, joint pain, irregular breathing, urinary and kidney complaints, weight loss and severe dental problems.
Scientific Freedom and Brain Drain
“Omid Kokabee was just carrying out the activities of a scientist, engaging in exchanges and interactions with his colleagues,” says Amnesty’s Elise Auerbach. “It is impossible for science to advance if scientists do not have a feeling of security and have to worry they can be targeted for engaging in their scientific work.”
In its statement last October, Iran’s Supreme Court acknowledged that discussion, the exchange of ideas and conference attendance were part of a scientist’s work, and should not be considered a crime.
“Iran already suffers from a severe brain drain — this has been recognized by highly placed Iranian government officials,” says Auerbach. “The Iranian science authorities have also made it clear they wish the country to benefit from scientific exchanges with the rest of the world, but the persecution of Omid Kokabee and others (like Hamid Babaei) is an impediment to furthering the Iranian national interest.”
Iranian scientists’ collaboration with the international science community could represent a strong opportunity for the country to forge productive, non-political relationships on the global stage. Iranian and American physicists have already expressed optimism over the potential development of an international physics laboratory in Iran, creating a solid foundation for more joint work between the two countries.
President Hassan Rouhani is well placed to take advantage of this, given his enthusiasm for Iran’s technological and scientific advancement. For many, the continued incarceration of Kokabee, a physicist with good international experience, calls into question this commitment; releasing him would be a clear demonstration of the government’s respect for scientific freedom and advancement.
When Rouhani was elected as president in 2013, he promised to reach a nuclear deal with world powers. Now that he has done so, campaigners hope that his administration will turn its attention to some of its other electoral promises, including improving human rights and boosting scientific innovation and education. If authorities release Omid Kokabee, this could be a key step toward addressing both of these issues — sending a message to Iranians, and the international community, that Iran acknowledges the contributions scientists make to the country’s progress, and that the trend toward imprisoning innocent people for political gains is coming to an end. Iran’s Supreme Court, and some of Iran’s most prominent politicians, know what they must do. But, as Professor Chudnovsky says, it could be that they simply lack the authority to do it — which could mean that the fate of Kokabee and others may lie in the hands of Iran’s flawed judiciary and the country’s Revolutionary Courts.
To read more stories like this, sign up to our weekly newsletter.