Thursday, October 30, 2014

Scientists and Activists Call for the Release of Imprisoned Iranian Physicist

Thirty-one physics Nobel laureates called for the release of an Iranian scientist jailed for refusing to work on his country's weapons program.

Elise Auerbach of Amnesty International shows off copies of the petition signed by 31 Nobel laureates.

For nearly four years, physicist Omid Kokabee has been imprisoned in Iran for a crime he didn't commit. Without seeing the evidence against him or even being allowed to defend himself in court, the Iranian government convicted him of "communicating with a hostile government" and receiving "illegitimate funds" in the form of his student stipend while a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin.

"There is absolutely no evidence that he was engaged in anything but scientific research," said Eugene Chudnovsky of the Committee of Concerned Scientists.

In recent weeks efforts by human rights activists to free Kokabee have stepped up. On Monday, representatives from Amnesty International and the Committee of Concerned Scientists delivered the petition signed by about half of the living physics Nobel laureates to the Iranian Mission to the United Nations in New York. A rally in support of Kokabee was held out front the next day.

Activists rally for Kokabee outside the office building that houses Iran's mission to the United Nations.

In early October, discouraging news about his health showed that prison was taking its toll on the young scientist. He's lost four teeth and developed potentially serious heart, kidney, and stomach problems. Despite these conditions, the prison doctor's recommendations that he receive a medical furlough, have been ignored, and he remains locked up.

Omid Kokabee
However activists have been buoyed by the news the same week that the Iranian supreme court vacated his sentence and ordered his case to be retried. He's still locked up, but this could open a path for Kokabee's freedom. Though there are no guarantees, there are past examples of an Iranian political prisoner's sentence at retrial being dismissed or commuted to time already served.

Kokabee, an Iranian citizen, was arrested at the Tehran airport in January of 2011 while visiting his family over winter break. After 15 months without a trial, including a month in solitary confinement, he was sentenced to ten years in Tehran's notorious Evin prison. In an open letter published in 2012, he said that as early as 2005 representatives of the Iranian government contacted him, asking him to work on military projects. He refused each time, even after he had been arrested and promised his freedom if he collaborated.

"His only crime is his conscience and his belief in doing what is right," said Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

Both APS and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have recognized him for his moral stand and Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience.

"He wants his talents to be used for peaceful purposes, not for military purposes," said Elise Auerbach of Amnesty International.

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