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Imprisoned Physicist Honored for Refusing to Work on Iran's Nuclear Program

Monday, September 23, 2013
Omid Kokabee, now imprisoned in Iran.
Omid Kokabee, a University of Texas, Austin, graduate student who has been imprisoned in Iran for more than two years, received APS's Andrei Sakharov human rights prize for refusing to collaborate on the country's nuclear program. In May, an Iranian court sentenced him to ten years in prison for "communicating with a hostile government" and receiving "illegal earnings." The so-called "illegal earnings" were the student loans he received while in Texas.

Kokabee, who is an Iranian citizen, was arrested in January of 2011 when he traveled to Tehran to visit family over his winter break. While waiting for his flight to return to the United States, he was pulled aside by the security forces at Khomeini Airport. They brought him to Tehran's notorious Evin prison, where numerous political prisoners are held. The Iranian authorities kept him in solitary confinement for 36 days, before allowing family members to visit. Twice, court appearances were canceled at the last minute for no reason until finally, fifteen months after his arrest he had his brief time in front of a judge.

On May 15, he was collectively tried with 14 other prisoners. The presiding judge, Abolghasem Salavati, is nicknamed "the Judge of Death" for his harsh sentences. The night before the trial, several of the accused confessed to the crimes they were accused of on television. Kokabee refused to confess to anything and declined to speak in court.

Kokabee was sentenced to ten years in prison without ever speaking to a lawyer, having a chance to defend himself in court or having any evidence presented against him. Other people at his trial received the death penalty.

The reasons for his imprisonment are murky and likely political. In 2009, waves of student protest swept through Iran calling for more social and political freedoms. In response, the government clamped down on students and academic institutions, and it's possible Kokabee was swept up in the crackdown, even though his family and friends say that Kokabee was never politically active.

Kokabee himself claims that he may have been targeted by the government after he refused to work on the country's nuclear program. Iran has been pursuing a kind of uranium enrichment called SILEX which uses carbon dioxide lasers, the same kind of lasers that Kokabee was using in his graduate studies.

Iran's Evin prison. Nicknamed "Evin University" because
of the large number of intellectuals held there.
Image: Ehsan Iran via WikimediaCommons.
In a letter he wrote from prison, Kokabee said that he had been approached multiple times since 2005 by agents from the Iranian government asking him to join the country's weapons program. He said also that even during his incarceration he was told that if he agreed to help enrich uranium, all of the charges against him would be dropped. Kokabee refused to collaborate, and remains in prison.

"Is it a sin that I don't want, under any circumstances, to get involved in security and military activities?" Kokabee wrote in his open letter from jail.

He was awarded APS's Andrei Sakharov Prize for "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."

The award comes at a critical time in relations between the United States and Iran. Tomorrow, the new president of Iran will travel to New York to address the United Nations. There's a good chance that he might meet with President Obama in some capacity. Even if it's a handshake in the hallway, it would be the highest level contact between the two nations since the Iranian revolution in 1979.

In the run up to his New York visit, President Hassan Rouhani released nearly 100 political prisoners of the unknown hundreds held in the country. Unfortunately, the time of publication, it appears that Omid Kokabee was not among them.
Posted by quantum