Physics graduate student Omid Kokabee pled not guilty to charges of communicating with a hostile government and receiving illegitimate funds on Tuesday in Iranian court, according to the Associated Press.
Kokabee, an international Iranian student, was arrested nine months ago under initial accusations from the Iranian government that he was leaking Iran’s nuclear secrets to the United States. His arrest sparked outcry from various academic representatives and organizations for his release. Michele Irwin, an international program administrator for the American Physical Society said the society sent a letter on July 25 to the Grand Ayatollah of Iran clarifying that Kokabee was an optics major with no nuclear background and demanded his release.
“Nobody really knows why he’s in jail and being treated this way,” Irwin said.
Eugene Chudnovsky, member of the American Physical Society and the Board of the Committee of Concerned Scientists, said he believes that Kokabee’s student visa and stipend may be to blame.
“They do have a history of detaining scientists,” Chudnovsky said. “This is the first time a student visa has been considered as associating with a hostile government, however. We suppose his stipend from the University of Texas at Austin is what they are calling illegitimate funds.”
Chudnovsky said information relayed to him Tuesday was not hopeful for Kokabee’s release.
“The lawyer said that he was not very optimistic because the punishments handed down in court today were quite harsh,” Chudnovsky said.
Kokabee was not permitted to defend himself in court other than by written statement, Chudnovsky said.
“According to an email from his lawyer, Kokabee was not even allowed to speak in court,” Chudnovsky said. “He was only allowed to submit answers in writing. After all these months he has not been allowed to talk to his lawyer.”
Chudnovsky said thousands of other Iranian nationals may now delay traveling back to their homeland as a result of the court’s actions.
“There are quite a many Iranian or Iranian-American students who are exactly in the same situation and are scared,” Chudnovsky said. “The sentence may be anything from a year in prison to decades in prison or death. Can you imagine a death sentence for simply being a UT-Austin student?”
John Keto, UT physics graduate adviser, said Kokabee’s Iranian classmates now fear going home to Iran.
“Most are now concerned about travel back to Iran, even for a visit,” Keto said.
The physics department is working delicately with scientific organizations to help advocate for Kokabee’s release, Keto said. He said he learned in May that Kokabee had been arrested and jailed in solitary confinement in a political prison in February before he was to depart back to the United States. The department remained fairly quiet as other organizations wrote letters and drafted petitions on Kokabee’s behalf.
“A serious outcry from the U.S. may have been interpreted by the Iranian courts as interference and evidence confirming the allegations of Omid’s working with the U.S. government.” Keto said. “This was why for the first four months Omid’s family requested that we keep our knowledge of the situation confidential.”
Chudnovsky said he believes the U.S. State Department may be the only resource standing between Kokabee and prison now.
“It’s a diplomatic issue,” Chudnovsky said. “We are trying to mobilize the State Department. Never before has a student visa been considered communicating with a hostile government. The State Department is going to have to do something.”
Printed on Wednesday, October 5, 2011 as: Kokabee trial a 'diplomatic issue'