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By Michael Lucibella
Imprisoned Iranian physicist Omid Kokabee will be granted a retrial after spending more than three years incarcerated in Iran. A branch of the Iranian Supreme Court has agreed to accept Kokabee’s appeal and revisit his case, possibly clearing the way for his release within a few months.
“Acceptance of the retrial request means that the top judicial authority has deemed Dr. Omid Kokabee’s [initial] verdict against the law,” Kokabee’s lawyer, Saeed Khalili, was quoted as saying on the website of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “The path has been paved for a retrial in his case, and God willing, proving his innocence.”
Kokabee, a citizen of Iran who at the time was studying at the University of Texas at Austin, was first 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. Earlier this year, 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.”
The recent ruling by Iran’s Supreme Court branch is a positive development for the imprisoned scientist. By accepting the retrial, the court effectively throws out his previous conviction and will reconsider both the conviction and the sentence. At present Kokabee is still in prison, but those close to him hope to secure a medical furlough for him because of a recent flare-up of medical issues related to his incarceration.
“In other cases, for instance, the courts have decided that the new sentence would be for time already served,” said Elise Auerbach, the Iran country specialist for Amnesty International. “The most important thing is that he gets out of prison and gets the care he needs.”
Over the three years of his imprisonment, Kokabee has developed a number of potentially serious health problems due to a lack of proper medical care. Already he’s lost four teeth, and four more are in need of emergency attention. He’s had heart palpitations and stomach pains, and he has passed at least five kidney stones. Two of the best treatments for kidney stones are drinking water and exercise, but Kokabee has had little opportunity for either.
“These problems are accumulating, which is common for prisoners in Iran,” said Eugene Chudnovsky, chair of the Committee of Concerned Scientists. “They leave prison with permanent chronic conditions.”
In August, Kokabee was transferred from the more open, political wing of Evin Prison to a single crowded “temporary” cell without windows, holding about 100 cellmates, with no access to the outside. The cells are dirtier and the food served there is worse than in the political wing, contributing to his health issues. Before being transferred he had been able hold physics classes with other political prisoners, for which he had been reprimanded.
At one point in July, while he was still in the political wing, a number of individuals in mufti were let into the prison grounds by the guards and attacked Kokabee and several other prisoners while they were exercising in the yard. It is unclear if this attack somehow prompted the relocation of Kokabee and a number of other prisoners to their current ward.
The court’s decision to retry the case hinges on the fact that Kokabee was convicted under the section of Iranian law that covers interactions with “enemy states.” Though there are no formal diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran, and ongoing contact is not particularly friendly, to qualify as an “enemy state,” a country has to be at war with Iran.
“Technically, legally, the Iranian government is not in a state of war with the United States,” Auerbach said. “It’s sort of a technical argument, revolving around a technical point, but it does provide…[an] opportunity to legally void the sentence.”
The court’s decision comes at a time when international organizations have stepped up pressure on Iran to release Kokabee. Twenty-nine physics Nobel laureates signed a petition calling for his release, which was organized by APS, the Committee of Concerned Scientists, Amnesty International, and the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. These four organizations plan to deliver their petitions to representatives of the government of Iran in person.
Amnesty also collected more than 14,000 signatures on a petition calling for his release, and APS sent a letter to the president of Iran asking for leniency. In early October, students rallied at the University of Texas at Austin, holding pictures of Kokabee and calling for his release. “There’s been a group on campus called Austin for Omid, and they’ve been very effective,” said Herb Berk, one of Kokabee’s physics professors at the university.
Starting in late October, the United Nations will begin its Universal Periodic Review of human rights in Iran. “[The Iranian government] would never have [made] this decision in the absence of a lot of pressure,” Auerbach said.
The new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has billed himself as a reformer who wants to strengthen human rights in his country and build ties with the rest of the world. Before traveling to the United Nations last year, he ordered the release of 11 of the most prominent political prisoners in the country. Though Rouhani himself is not coming to New York in October, human rights activists are hopeful that more political prisoners may be released. “If they want to release him, now is the right time,” said Chudnovsky.
Still, Iran’s human rights record under Rouhani is mixed at best. Since his election in 2013, the number of executions in Iran has increased, and the arrests of journalists and human rights activists have continued. “Overall we have not seen a significant improvement over the last year, since president Rouhani came to office,” Auerbach said. “The hardliners are in control of the security apparatus and judicial apparatus of Iran.”
Though ultimately the court could still decide against Kokabee, the reopening of the case was a cause for optimism. “To me this is a very helpful sign. It’s a sign that the authorities are looking for a way out of this situation,” Auerbach said. “I think the stars are aligned at this point. I think the Iranian government wants to make a goodwill gesture.”
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