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By Michael Lucibella
In a surprising setback to efforts to free imprisoned Iranian physicist Omid Kokabee, an appeals court in Iran rejected the recommendations of its Supreme Court and upheld his 10-year prison sentence. Human rights activists had been hoping that he might be released early following the Supreme Court’s decision in October to vacate his initial sentence and have the lower revolutionary court retry him.
“The lower court upheld all of the charges without giving any explanation,” said Eugene Chudnovsky, a board member of the Committee of Concerned Scientists.
It’s unclear whether Kokabee will be able to appeal his current conviction. A spokesperson for the Iranian judicial system indicated that the Supreme Court could opt to revisit the case again and issue a final decision. However, Kokabee’s lawyer, Saeed Khalili, said in an interview with the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran that the appeals process may apply only to harsher sentences and possibly not to Kokabee.
“Even the lawyer is not sure if there are legal grounds to go back to the Supreme Court,” Chudnovsky said. He added that Kokabee’s lawyer is likely planning on appealing in any case, but it is unclear whether the Supreme Court will hear his case or what the outcome will be.
Kokabee, an Iranian citizen, was studying at the University of Texas, Austin, when he was arrested at the Tehran airport in January 2011. After spending 15 months in prison waiting for a trial, including more than a month in solitary confinement, he was convicted by Iran’s Revolutionary Court of “communicating with a hostile government” and receiving “illegitimate funds” in the form of his college loans. He was sentenced to ten years in prison without ever talking to his lawyer or being allowed testimony in his defense.
Kokabee said in an open letter that the reason for his detention is his steadfast refusal to help Iran’s military. In 2014, Kokabee received the APS Sakharov Prize for his unwillingness “to work on projects that he deemed harmful to humanity, in the face of extreme physical and psychological pressure.”
His health has been deteriorating recently. As the result of his harsh treatment in prison, his family reported that he has developed a number of serious health problems including heart palpitations, kidney stones, stomach pain, and loss of teeth. Despite his worsening health, he has received almost no medical care, even though the prison doctor recommended a medical furlough for him. Activists had hoped that he might be released for medical reasons after his retrial.
“Unfortunately it seems like they’re just digging in their heels,” said Elise Auerbach, the Iran country specialist for Amnesty International.
In October 2014, the Supreme Court of Iran vacated Kokabee’s sentence of “communicating with a hostile government” by finding that while the United States and Iran have strained diplomatic relations with each other, they are not technically in a state of war and therefore not a “hostile” government.
Divining the intentions of the Iranian justice system is difficult. Politics often drive decisions and the proceedings are opaque. “The procedures in the revolutionary courts in Iran fail to adhere to international standards for fair trials,” Auerbach said. “There were so many problems with his conviction, and any conviction in the revolutionary courts. It’s just not based on evidence.”
Auerbach added also that it was unusual to see a decision overturned by the Supreme Court, then overturned again by a lower court. “It’s like one slap in the face countered by another slap in the face. And for such a thing to happen in such a public way is, I would say, quite unprecedented,” Auerbach said. “When it’s out in the open like this, it’s really quite extraordinary.”
Because politics plays such a big role in the Iranian courts, activists say it is possible to influence the decisions of the court from outside the system. “We just really need a public outcry and I think we have our work cut out to generate the activism it’s going to take to counteract these hard liners,” Auerbach said. “It will be an uphill battle though.”
Chudnovsky, however, is less optimistic. “No one knows where this is going or whether there will be any light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
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