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Scientists, Rights Activists Protest Treatment of Jailed Iranian Physicist

  • Cecily Hilleary

This undated photo shows Iranian physicist Omid Kokabee. (photo provided by Ellen Huchinson)

This undated photo shows Iranian physicist Omid Kokabee. (photo provided by Ellen Huchinson)

Human rights groups, scientists and backers of academic freedom are stepping up efforts on behalf of Omid Kokabee, a young Iranian physicist who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in May 2010 on conspiracy charges.

Kokabee is to be featured in an upcoming Amnesty International panel discussion in Washington D.C. on academic repression in Iran. In September he was awarded the 2014 American Physical Society’s Andre Sakharov Prize for what the society described as his “courage in refusing to use his physics knowledge to work on projects that he deemed harmful to humanity in the face of extreme physical and psychological pressure.”

Omid Kokabee. Image provided by Ellen Huchinson.

Omid Kokabee. Image provided by Ellen Huchinson.

Kokabee, who is now 31, is considered one the brightest physicists of his generation. He graduated from Iran’s Sharif University of Technology and then went to Spain to obtain a Master’s degree from Barcelona’s Institute of Photonic Sciences.

In 2010 he transferred to the University of Texas at Austin (UTA) to pursue studies in laser physics. In his first semester, he worked as a teaching assistant, for which he received a stipend, and conducted research into the design and development of tunable lasers--superfast lasers that can be controlled and tuned over a broad wavelength range, something that cannot be easily done with conventional lasers.

Ellen Huchinson, a friend and fellow UTA graduate student, says the technology has many applications—from astronomy to medicine to enriching uranium for generating nuclear power or military weapons.

“People are trying to figure out how to enrich uranium with lasers, and if that is successful, instead of using a large building with a centrifuge, tunable laser technology would basically make it possible to use a table-top device,” she said.

In other words, this technology would allow researchers to enrich uranium in small plants or factories which would not necessarily show up on satellite imagery.

Kokabee’s knowledge attracted attention

Omid made several trips to Iran while he was in Spain because his mother had health problems, Huchinson explains. She says she believes this may have created suspicions in Iran.

“Omid went back to Iran in December of 2010 after the semester had ended,” Huchinson said. “And while he was visiting his family, he was approached by the Iranian nuclear energy organization to work for them and he said no.”

As it turns out, this was not the first time authorities had made him offers.

“Since 2005, I have been invited several times to work as a scientist and technical manager for military and intelligence projects,” Kokabee said in a letter to a former university roommate, translated by Nature magazine. “I was invited to work in the Research Centre of Malek Ashtar University in Isfahan. I was offered a doctorate scholarship by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran [AEOI] and I was invited to produce proposals for the projects led by the Defense Industries Organization,” Kokabee wrote. He said he refused all offers.

Kokabee was arrested at the Tehran airport in January 2011 as he was attempting to return to Texas and charged with “gathering and conspiring against the national security of the country.”

He spent months inside Iran’s notorious Evin Prison, where he said he was threatened and intimidated into making a written confession. In letters smuggled from prison he said he believes the real reason for his imprisonments was his refusal to cooperate with Iranian military projects.

He was tried in May 2012 along with a dozen men accused of spying for Israeli and US intelligence. He said he was not allowed to speak with his lawyer, Saeed Khalili, and prosecutors presented no evidence against him. He was charged with espionage and receiving income from a hostile government and given ten years in jail.

“We basically figure that’s because he got grants from school,” said Huchinson. Like all teaching assistants, the University of Texas provided him fiscal support, but his professors stress that these funds did not come from the US government.

Life in Evin “Hotel”

Omid has now spent nearly three years in Ward 350 of Evin prison, dubbed the “Hotel,” where many of Iran political prisoners are housed. A source close to Omid who asks not to be named said he is allowed visits only by immediate family members for a total of 20 minutes each week. “Even his mother cannot hug him. Only rarely do they have meetings in person in which his mother can hug him.”

“Unfortunately,” the source said, “his physical health is not good. He suffers from kidney and stomach problems which he had from his childhood…his requests to be sent to a hospital outside prison for a visit or diagnosis have been denied.”

The source also said Omid stays busy by tutoring fellow inmates in English, Spanish and French. He has translated two books from English into Farsi. He recently submitted a paper on lasers to a prestigious annual Iranian conference on physics. “He has been invited for an oral presentation, but unfortunately, they did not let him attend,” the source said.

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