UT student's prison sentence sparks academic support

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Updated June 13, 2012 at 7:53 a.m.

Scientists and professors are continuing their efforts to gain international and local support for UT physics graduate student Omid Kokabee, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in Iran for allegedly conspiring with foreign countries in plots against the Iranian government.

Kokabee was arrested during winter break in 2010 while visiting family in Iran and was held in prison for 15 months before being charged guilty by an Iranian court and sentenced to 10 years in prison May 13 of this year. Both the American Physical Society’s Committee on International Freedom of Scientists and the Committee of Concerned Scientists have created petitions to gain the support of students and professors around the world on behalf of Kokabee. Neither the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or the Iranian government have responded to letters from the Committee of Concerned Scientists asking for Kokabee’s release or issued a statement on his case.

UT physics professor Herbert Berk, a member of the American Physical Society’s Committee on International Freedom of Scientists, said Kokabee was not given access to lawyers and was tried along with 10 to 15 other people in a sentencing that was only a few minutes long.

Several of the individuals in that trial were executed, Berk said.

“The Iranian government can be quite arbitrary, and though we respect the fact of the possibility of his guilt he should be allowed to defend himself,” Berk said. “He is not being allowed his rights.”

Berk said the only time Kokabee was officially read his charges was in the final trial, which was only a few minutes long.

“He did not have a chance to mount a real defense,” Berk said.

Sophie Cook, executive director of Committee of Concerned Scientists, said Kokabee’s situation has the potential of making international students not want to return home and discourage students from studying abroad.

“That will be unfortunate from everyone’s point of view, including Iran, which has a very great academic and intellectual heritage,” Cook said. “Science is one world now, so in order to participate people have to be able to travel.”

Cook said the committee believes Kokabee is innocent and that he has reportedly denied his charges multiple times under the intense pressure to confess. Cook said she is not sure why the Iranian government arrested and tried Kokabee.

“It is really very hard to speculate about a regime that is very secretive,” Cook said. “The Iranians don’t really explain their actions, even to their own people. All you can see is somebody goes abroad and that makes them a target for suspicion.”

Thursday, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will host a panel discussion about Kokabee’s case featuring brothers Kamiar and Arash Alaei, who were charged in 2008 for communicating with enemy governments and sentenced to three years and six years, respectively. After international efforts petitioning for their release, Kamiar was released in December 2010 and Arash in 2011.

Kamiar Alaei said the mental pressures of being in political prison were challenging for him and he suspects it will be difficult for Kokabee as well.

“Being in very high security, having limited access to family, limited access to the restroom and lots of other things makes people suffer a lot,” Kamiar Alaei said. “And even after they get released, it takes them a while to recover.”

He said in order for Kokabee to have a chance of being released, pressure has to be put on the Iranian government.

“The students have to show the passion and the motivation to campaign and to use the networks beyond the University,” Kamiar Alaei said. “At the same time, the distinguished professors have to talk openly about this case.”

Kamiar Alaei said he wants Kokabee to know he is not alone and not forgotten.

“He has higher and bigger networks and families around the world who are thinking about him, who are caring about him and who are passionate about getting the Iranian government to release him,” he said. “We have a very famous Iranian poem that says ‘If you are far from me, as long as you are thinking of me, it’s near that you are with me.’”