APS News

APS Protests Iranian Jailing Of UT Austin Physics Student

APS’s Committee on International Freedom of Scientists issued a letter calling on the Grand Ayatollah of Iran to release an imprisoned physics student. The committee believes that he has committed no crime, and his arrest will discourage future scientific collaboration.  

Omid Kokabee, a first-year graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, and an APS member, has been imprisoned in Iran since January or February and is currently awaiting trial. For the first month of his arrest he was held in solitary confinement. He has been jailed in Evin prison in northwest Tehran, where the Iranian government holds many of its political prisoners. The government of Iran is accusing him of leaking Iranian nuclear secrets to the United States, accepting “illegal earnings” and “communicating with a hostile government.”

“Mr. Kokabee has no training in nuclear physics, is not politically active, and is not associated with any political movement in Iran. Rather his primary concerns were his science studies in the field of optics. This area of physics has essentially no overlap with nuclear technology,” the letter read, adding that they believe the arrest came as a misunderstanding of his science.

Kokabee had returned to Iran during winter break to visit his family. When he stopped responding to emails, officials at the university started getting concerned. At first, word came through an acquaintance who also hailed from Iran that he had had an accident in Iran and wouldn’t be returning the following semester. Later the same acquaintance revealed that he had in fact been arrested. Initially Kokabee’s family had wanted to keep the matter quiet so as not to provoke the Iranian government.

“There’s no rational reason for his arrest. He’s not a political person,” said John Keto, the advisor for graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin. “He was a serious dedicated scientist who was mostly interest in his science.”

The trial for Kokabee was originally slated for July 15th, but was unexpectedly postponed.

Kokabee first tried coming to the United States to pursue his masters degree a few years ago, but he could not secure a visa to travel to the country as a student. Instead he received his masters at the Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya in Spain then enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin’s PhD program after a concerted effort on the part of the university. Keto described Kokabee as a “remarkable” student, who had already produced a number of scientific papers and traveled to many conferences across Europe.

The arrest has also worried other Iranian students studying in the United States. “The Iranian students are very concerned about whether they should ever go home again,” Keto said.

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Editor: Alan Chodos