APS News

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.

Sentences Upheld for Two Russian Scientists
In February, the Russian Supreme Court upheld the sentences of scientists Yevgeny Afanasyev and Svyatoslav Bobyshev, who were convicted in June 2012 of passing secret information to the Chinese concerning Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missile.  The professors from St. Petersburg Baltic State Technological University were detained in March 2010 and accused of divulging state secrets during lectures given at a Chinese university. The allegations supposedly stem from an agreement between their university and Harbin Engineering University in China. Bobyshev and Afanasyev have argued that their lectures did not contain any state secrets. During the period between their detention in 2010 and trial in 2012, they were held for many months without any formal charges, something that CIFS protested to Russian authorities.  

Omid Kokabee Writes Letter from Prison
APS member Omid Kokabee has written a letter from Evin prison in Iran indicating that he is being persecuted for refusing to work on Iranian security and military projects. In the letter to his friend and former roommate at Sharif University, Kokabee writes that he has repeatedly been asked to work on such projects since 2005, but has always refused as he wishes to pursue a life path of his own choosing. His letter mentions that the day before his arrest in January 2011, he had been chased, and forced to attend a meeting at the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. This pressure to work on security and military projects has continued during his imprisonment. In fact, Kokabee wrote that he has been offered his freedom should he cooperate.  

Students and scientists at the University of Texas at Austin who are supporting CIFS member Herb Berk’s efforts to help Kokabee released a short documentary to mark the two-year anniversary of Kokabee’s detention. APS members can view the video on the “Freedom For Omid” online documentary page.

In March, CIFS wrote to the 47 members of the UN Human Rights Council requesting that they bring up Kokabee’s plight with officials from Iran. CIFS asked that they encourage Iran to comply with its international human rights obligations with respect to Kokabee’s treatment.

Kokabee was arrested in Iran in January 2011 while trying to travel to the United States to continue his graduate studies in optics at the University of Texas at Austin. He was convicted and sentenced in May 2012 to ten years in prison for “cooperation with a hostile government,” i.e., the United States. His conviction was upheld on appeal in August 2012, and Kokabee subsequently had 91 days added to his sentence for earning illegal money for teaching fellow inmates physics as well as Spanish, English and French.

AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition
On January 31 and February 1, the Science and Human Rights Coalition met at the headquarters of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, DC. This meeting focused on the intersections among children’s rights, science and technology. Participants learned about the rights of children as set out in international declarations and treaties as well as issues on which science and technology could impact important children’s rights concerns.  

While at the meeting, APS representatives Juan Gallardo and Michele Irwin attended a meeting of the Coalition’s Working Group on the Welfare of Scientists. The Working Group aims to help the scientific community better respond to cases of alleged human rights violations by increasing the number of scientific societies advocating for the rights of scientists, coordinating their efforts, and providing access to tools and resources necessary to effectively respond to human rights abuses.  

The next Coalition meeting on July 11-12 will focus on Article 15 of the United Nation’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), i.e., that all people have the right to “enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.” The meeting will include sessions on international scientific cooperation, open access, and the connection between government funding for science and the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress.  

CIFS encourages APS members to attend the Science and Human Rights Coalition meeting in July to learn about the connections between science and human rights and see how they and their research can contribute to the Coalition’s efforts.  

APS Andrei Sakharov Prize
APS is currently accepting nominations for the APS Andrei Sakharov Prize. The Prize is named in recognition of the courageous and effective work of Andrei Sakharov on behalf of human rights, to the detriment of his own scientific career and despite the loss of his own personal freedom. The Prize is awarded to “recognize outstanding leadership and/or achievements of scientists in upholding human rights.” The next prize will be issued in 2014 and nominations are due July 1, 2013.


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella