Chancellor’s letter pleads for release of sick prisoner

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Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

A statement from Chancellor McRaven and President Fenves pleading for the release of former UT graduate student was announced Monday.

Omid Kokabee has been imprisoned in his home country of Iran since January 2011. The Iranian government imprisoned Kokabee after he refused to contribute to the country’s military research. No statement has been released by the previous chancellor.

“Given Mr. Kokabee’s current physical condition, Chancellor McRaven made the decision to write a joint letter with President Fenves,” UT system spokewoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said.

Chancellor Cigarroa felt it was appropriate for official statements on the situation to come from the campus president, Caputo said.

Physics professor Herb Berk said Kokabee was a physics student who had only studied at the University for one semester before traveling back home.

“He was here for just a few months, just one term, when he went back to Iran to visit his family and was arrested there,” Berk said.

Berk has been involved in efforts to release Kokabee for the past four years, and chaired the American Physical Society’s Committee on International Freedom of Scientists from 2014 to 2015.

“We were able to organize a petition that got 33 Nobel laureates to sign, asking for Kokabee’s freedom,” Berk said.

Berk said they asked not only for release, but for a transfer to a hospital due to Kokabee’s deteriorating health and more recent diagnosis of kidney cancer.

“We’ve written several letters in the past when he was getting ill asking them to at least hospitalize Kokabee, and he didn’t get hospitalized until very recently, and he already had a tumor at that point,” Berk said.

Berk said the most recent ruling involved conflicting legal conclusions.

“The last news we obtained was that the supreme court of Iran ruled his grounds for imprisonment were void, or not correct,” Berk said.

The court that convicted Kokabee ruled they don’t have to follow the supreme court’s ruling, claiming their reason for imprisonment was still justified, Berk said.

“I think a majority of Iranian scientists would very much like to see Kokabee released,” Berk said.

Physics junior Matthew Durbin said it was quite a big deal for physics students, that the president of UT contacted the supreme leader through the embassy. 

“I do research at a nuclear reactor, and I plan to have a career in nuclear physics,” Durbin said. “In America I wont likely face that situation the way Omid did. I hope I would have the courage Omid did. It is quite remarkable, what he is taking for what he believes in.” 

Durbin said this happens more than is often talked about.

“It is saddening that this sort of thing, is a very real part of our world. Particularly for the scientific community,” Durbin said.