APS News

Imprisoned Physics Student Declared Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International

By Michael Lucibella

Amnesty International has declared Omid Kokabee, the former University of Texas at Austin physics graduate student now imprisoned in Iran, a "prisoner of conscience" and called for his release. The announcement followed a symposium, held at Georgetown University on November 16, about academic freedom in Iran and his ongoing detention.

"The organization considers Omid Kokabee a prisoner of conscience, held solely for his refusal to work on military projects in Iran and as a result of spurious charges related to his legitimate scholarly ties with academic institutions outside of Iran," reads the statement from Amnesty. The organization defines prisoners of conscience as people who are jailed solely for their non-violent political beliefs.

Omid Kokabee is an Iranian citizen who had been pursuing his PhD in optics and photonics at U.T. Austin. When he returned to visit family in Iran over his winter break in 2011, he was arrested at the Tehran airport. After being held for more than a year without trial, he was sentenced to ten years in jail for conspiring with and receiving "illegal funds" from the United States in the form of his student loans. In a 2013 letter from prison, Kokabee said the real reason he was arrested was because he repeatedly refused to work on military projects.

Organizers of the Georgetown event wanted to raise awareness about his imprisonment, and call attention to the problem of academic repression in Iran.

"Science should be conducted free of interference, all kinds of interference. That is the way it works," said panelist Hossein Sadeghpour, chair of the APS Committee on International Freedom of Scientists. "Kokabee is now becoming, whether you want it or not, an icon for science free of pressure [and] free of political influence."

He is incarcerated in Tehran's Evin Prison, where many Iranian political prisoners are said to be held and tortured. Since he was jailed, Kokabee has lost more than 15 pounds and also has been denied medical care for a kidney disease, said panelist Eugene Chudnovsky, one of the co-chairs of the Committee of Concerned Scientists. In addition, prison administrators extended his sentence by 91 days because Kokabee was teaching physics to other prisoners.

His incarceration, however, has not prevented him from continuing to work on theoretical physics. He's written several physics papers based on his past research, including one that was accepted to an international conference, but prison guards wouldn't allow him to attend.

Ellen Hutchison, a student at U.T. Austin, spearheaded many of the efforts through the university to effect his release. She set up the website FreeOmid.org and wrote to the 50 ambassadors from nations on the United Nations Human Rights Council to lobby on his behalf. In addition, her group organized a letter writing campaign directed at the leadership of Iran itself, and the foreign ministers of 25 nations. She also put together a petition at Change.org, which reached 854 signatures.

"I made a document with the help of Omid's lawyer, and we documented every trial irregularity from the beginning," Hutchison said, adding that Iran's conduct violated both the Universal declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Sadeghpour also criticized the status of academic freedom in Iran. He highlighted how the government of Iran required every undergraduate degree be made up of Islamic studies classes.

"We know that we cannot solve Fourier equations without taking religious studies," Sadeghpour said sarcastically. 

The Georgetown event was sponsored by APS, Amnesty International, the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, United4Iran, the Committee of Concerned Scientists, Georgetown University Amnesty International and the Georgetown University Science and Human Rights Group.


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