APS News

Imprisoned APS Member Faces Harsh Treatment and Charges in Iran

By Michael Lucibella

Omid Kokabee  

Omid Kokabee

Last month, APS News reported on the jailing of a University of Texas at Austin physics student in Iran. Since then, new details have become available and some new developments have occurred.

Physics student and APS Member Omid Kokabee remains imprisoned in Iran, facing charges of crimes against the Iranian state. He has been held in solitary confinement in Iran’s notorious political prison for over a month, has faced various forms of psychological abuse, and has been charged with attempting to subvert the government of Iran.

Kokabee, who is a native of Iran, is a first-year graduate student studying optics at UT Austin. He was arrested in January at Khomeini Airport while waiting to board a plane to return to the United States. He had travelled to Iran to visit his family over winter break.

People close to Kokabee were shocked to hear about his arrest. They said that not only has he never committed any action to subvert the Iranian government, but also he has never been involved with politics either inside or outside of Iran.

“The sad thing about Omid is that he is not a political activist,” said a friend of his who asked to remain anonymous because he has family living in Iran. “He’s a student in physics… He was never into politics, he was never a member in any political group or anything.”

The graduate student advisor at UT Austin, John Keto, echoed these sentiments.

“He loved physics and science and that’s what he was concentrating on,” Keto said. “There’s no rational reason for his arrest, he’s not a political person.”

Kokabee received his undergraduate degree at the Sarif University of Technology in Tehran. After an initially unsuccessful attempt to get a student visa to come to the United States for graduate school, he received his master’s degree from the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya in Barcelona. It was then that he was able, with help from UT Austin to secure a visa to travel to the United States for his doctorate.   

The reasons for his arrest are unclear. Several early reports indicated he might have been suspected of transmitting nuclear secrets to the United States. His colleagues and supporters have said that as a first-year graduate student in optics and photonics, he had neither the background nor the access to any nuclear secrets.

He’s been formally charged with “communicating with a hostile foreign government” and receiving “illegitimate funds” from the United States. It’s unclear where the charges stem from, as the Iranian government has not produced any evidence against him. Seemingly, coordinating with the State Department to get a visa into the United States would run afoul of the law. While at the University of Texas, Kokabee received the standard stipend for being a teaching assistant, which seems to be the basis of the second charge.

What is likely is that Kokabee has been caught up in the Iranian government’s recent crackdown on students following the 2009 protests against the government. An unknown number of students and other citizens have been branded as political dissidents, imprisoned and subjected to harsh treatment to get them to confess to acts against the Iranian government. In addition, Kokabee is Turkmen, an ethnic minority in Iran that has faced particularly close scrutiny from the government.

After he was arrested, Kokabee was taken to the notorious Evin prison for political dissidents located in northwestern Tehran and held in solitary confinement for 36 days. During that time he was routinely threatened, abused and only allowed to see his family for three minutes. After that first month, he was moved to the general prison population, and permitted to see visitors.

Kokabee described the harsh interrogation techniques used against him to extract false confessions in an open letter addressed to the Iranian Minister of Justice, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, that was published in the Iranian news outlet Kaleme. According to the letter, interrogators made veiled threats against his family, especially against his father who recently underwent heart surgery. In addition they threatened to arrest any students and faculty members he had contact with if he didn’t cooperate. To his interrogators, cooperation meant admitting to acts of subversion he didn’t commit.

“Once I realized that when I write things which the interrogators like, or write things they dictate, pressure was reduced, and there was less abuse and mistreatment. I concluded to confess to things which pleased the interrogators,” read the letter, as translated by Hossein Sadeghpour of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “I did not know then how severe the consequences would become. I was at times threatened with execution. At other times, I was told that if I confessed to the allegations they wanted me to write down, I’d [be] with my family in two to three days and be permitted to leave Iran. I tried to please them.”

Kokabee’s fate in court is uncertain. He was originally scheduled to appear on July 15 to face the charges against him. However, at the last minute and without any explanation, his court date was postponed indefinitely. At press time, Kokabee is still waiting for his trial.

Like many of the actions of the Iranian judiciary, the reasons behind the postponement are unclear. Eugene Chudnovsky, one of the chairs of the Committee of Concerned Scientists, speculated that it was likely because of increased international attention.

“I tend to think that because of the big noise…the judge probably decided it would be safer for him to postpone the trial and wait to get word from the office of [Iranian Supreme Leader] Ayatollah Khamenei,” Chudnovsky said.

When he does appear before a judge, it is likely to be Judge Abolghasem Salavat, who has become known around the world for presiding over several recent high-profile cases, including that of the two United States hikers charged with espionage, and those of numerous student dissidents connected with the 2009 protests against the government. He has earned the nickname “judge of death” for his harsh verdicts against political dissidents, including six death sentences.

Kokabee’s family, friends and human-rights advocates hope that public attention to the case will bring international pressure on the regime to release him. As reported last month in APS News, APS’s Committee on International Freedom of Scientists issued a letter on July 25 addressed to the Grand Ayatollah of Iran calling for his release, saying, in part, “We believe Mr. Kokabee’s arrest resulted from a misunderstanding of his activities and urge that he be released to return to his pursuit of scientific endeavors at the University of Texas, Austin.”

In early September, four leading optics societies, The Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE), the Optical Society of America [OSA], the International Commission for Optics (ICO) and the European Optical Society of America (EOS) similarly drafted an open letter calling for his release.

“On behalf of the optical scientists and engineers from the 170 countries represented by the international organizations, we respectfully request that you consider allowing our colleague to return to his studies,” the letter read.

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Editor: Alan Chodos