APS News

Sister of Imprisoned Physicist Accepts Sakharov Prize

By Michael Lucibella

APS April Meeting, Savanna

For the first time in its history, the APS Andrei Sakharov Prize was awarded to a scientist in jail. Omid Kokabee, one of this year’s two recipients, has been imprisoned in Iran for more than three years. His sister Leila traveled to the April Meeting in Savannah, Georgia to receive the prize on his behalf.

Kokabee, an Iranian citizen studying laser physics at the University of Texas at Austin, was arrested at Tehran’s international airport in January, 2011 and charged with “communicating with a hostile foreign government.” He was sentenced to 10 years in prison after a trial in which he was not allowed to testify or speak to a lawyer.

Two days after receiving the Sakharov Prize, Kokabee’s parents were permitted to visit him in person. They brought photos of the event and news about efforts to effect his release transmitted from the US by Leila.

During the APS April Meeting in Savannah, the Society’s international affairs department set up a table at the convention center to raise awareness about his imprisonment. “We had a lot of people come up and read the information,” said Michele Irwin, the APS international affairs administrator. There were a lot of people I spoke with who hadn’t heard of his case, which is kind of surprising considering the press it’s gotten.”

In addition to sharing information about the jailed physicist, Irwin and members of the Committee on International Freedom of Scientists used their table to help collect signatures for a petition calling for his release. In January, the website FreeOmid.org organized this latest petition to effect his release.  

“They started a petition to get Omid freed and asked APS, Amnesty International, the Committee of Concerned Scientists and an organization called United for Iran to sponsor the petition,” Irwin said. “We thought this could be a good opportunity to inform and educate APS attendees about Omid’s case.”

Irwin said that the group’s plan is to get about 1,000 signatures and send it to the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The organizers hope that the petition will help raise awareness in the physics community about what’s happened to Kokabee.

Editor's Note (January 5, 2015): Photo removed after concerns were raised about Kokabee's safety.

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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella
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