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APS Committee on International Freedom of Scientists

CIFS Briefs: Highlighting the Connection Between Human Rights and Science for the Physics Community

Since its creation in 1980, the APS Committee on International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS) has advocated for and defended the rights of scientists around the globe. In this column, CIFS describes some of the issues that the Committee is monitoring as well as the Society’s other human rights activities.

Russian Physicist Valentin Danilov released from prison
Valentin Danilov, the former head of the Thermo-Physics Centre at Krasnoyarsk State Technical University, was released from prison on parole in November 2012. In February 2001, Danilov was arrested for passing classified information to a Chinese company. Danilov and scientists with whom he had collaborated had noted that he was working under a legal contract between his university and the company and that this collaboration would be considered routine scientific cooperation. In fact, the information Danilov was accused of passing had been available in the open scientific literature for years. 

While Danilov was acquitted of spying by a jury in December 2003, the Russian Supreme Court overturned this acquittal in June 2004 and ordered a retrial. A second (non-jury) trial began the following September, and Danilov was convicted of espionage and embezzling funds–charges that he has always denied. He was sentenced to 14 years in jail.

CIFS is pleased to see that Danilov is finally free after spending more than a decade in prison.

Science and Human Rights Coalition
In 2007, the United Nations began a process to define Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which states that everyone has the right to “enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.” This process was launched without input from the scientific community. To ensure that the voices of the scientists are brought to this process, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is leading an initiative to involve the scientific community. 
 
Part of this initiative includes the organization of focus groups with members of scientific societies that participate in the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, of which APS is a member.  On 12 November 2012, seven APS members from the Washington, D.C. area took part in a focus group session at AAAS. The attendees were guided through a series of questions to obtain their perspectives on the contributions of physics to society, how to ensure that members of the physics community can undertake their research freely, and identify areas of physics research that may have human rights implications. Their discussions will feed into a report that the Coalition will present to the United Nations in 2013.

Omid Kokabee
Dr. Arash Alaei and Dr. Kamiar Alaei, two Iranian HIV/AIDS researchers spoke, on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, on the evening of 14 November 2012 on the general subject of freedom of scientists in Iran and specifically on the case of APS member Omid Kokabee. As APS News readers may know, Kokabee was a graduate student in optics at UT Austin at the time of his arrest in February 2011 in Iran. Kokabee was sentenced to 10 years in prison in May 2012 for conspiring with foreign governments against Iran. The event at UT Austin was held under the joint sponsorship of the APS Committee on International Freedom of Scientists, the UTA organization Austin for Iran-Student Chapter, Amnesty International, and the Working Group for the Welfare of Scientists of AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition.

The Alaei brothers had previously been imprisoned for two to three years from 2008-2011 on charges quite similar to the conspiracy charges of which Kokabee has been declared guilty. The brothers stated that there was absolutely no cause for these charges in either Kokabee’s or their cases.

Arash Alaei’s imprisonment at the Evin prison coincided with the beginning of Kokabee’s imprisonment, where they interacted closely with each other. The Alaei brothers had successfully organized prisoners to spend time teaching each other their personal skills and organizing hygienic practices among the prison workers when the brothers were told they needed to work in the prison kitchen. Kokabee has been continuing this instruction tradition by teaching physics and foreign languages to fellow prisoners.

Unfortunately, Kokabee’s health is now a factor as he has recently been suffering from kidney stones and has lost significant weight. There is concern that he is not being given proper medical treatment. In addition, his ten year prison term has been extended an additional 91 days for alleged illegal earnings from his instruction of fellow prisoners. 

The brothers suggest that the best way to advocate for Kokabee is to maintain international pressure on the Iranian government, especially as Iran has responded to pressure in the past, as attested to the freedom the Alaei brothers finally achieved. They are now working with representatives of Amnesty International to promote this advocacy. They are featured speakers for Amnesty International’s Global Write-A-Thon that took place at AAAS on 7 December 2012 Washington D.C. This event was a public protest demanding justice for Kokabee and other scientists unjustly imprisoned by the Iranian government.


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella