Iranian government

Former Iranian political prisoners Drs. Kamiar and Arash Alaei expressed the need to support post doctorate student Omid Kokabee by signing a petition for a fair trial. Kamiar also talked about their prison experiences and Arash talked about meeting Kokabee in prison.

Photo Credit: Marisa Vasquez | Daily Texan Staff

As the health of a former UT doctorate student jailed in Iran since February 2011 deteriorates, an international day of protest is being planned in his honor.

Dr. Arash Alaei and Dr. Kamiar Alaei, two Iranian HIV/AIDS researchers who were recently released from the same prison where Omid Kokabee has been in jail for almost two years on a 10-year sentence, spoke on campus Wednesday night. The brothers said the best way to advocate for Kokabee is to put international pressure on the Iranian government, as it has responded to pressure in the past. They said they are working with representatives of Amnesty International, a human rights advocacy organization, to plan the protest demanding justice for Kokabee and others treated unjustly by the Iranian government.

The Alaeis said they were jailed and sentenced to prison terms in Iran in 2008 for their work regarding HIV/AIDS research, a controversial topic in Iran.

Following international pressure from more than a dozen academic organizations, both were released within three years, before their sentences expired.

Kamiar Alaei said Kokabee’s condition has recently been deteriorating, as he does not have adequate access to medical care in the Iranian prison. He said Kokabee recently received a diagnosis of kidney stones by a prison doctor and was told he needed inpatient care, but the Iranian government has prevented Kokabee from getting it.

Arash Alaei said Kokabee recently lost six kilograms, roughly 13.2 pounds, as a result of his condition.

The brothers spoke at an event titled “From UT to Evin Prison: Case of Omid Kokabee Discussed,” hosted by the Committee on International Freedom of Scientists of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, APS Physics and Amnesty International. It focused on the political situation in Iran and Kokabee’s current plight.

Kamiar Alaei said he wants Kokabee to become “a voice of the voiceless and a face of the faceless.”

The brothers said people in Iran are often treated unjustly because the government does not agree with their work. They said groups targeted include politically active women, attorneys and students. They did not know what was controversial about Kokabee’s work and said the arrests can often seem arbitrary.

“They encourage some doctorate students to go abroad, and the next day they arrest some of them,” Kamiar Alaei said.

Kokabee was arrested in Iran in February 2011 while he was visiting family. He was charged with conspiring with foreign countries in plots against the Iranian government and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Following his original arrest, protests broke out around the world, but the Iranian government has not reduced or dismissed Kokabee’s charges.

Kokabee lost his final appeal of the charges in August and recently received an additional 90-day sentence for teaching other prisoners English, French, Spanish and physics, his attorney, Saeed Khalili, said.

Kokabee was convicted of the original charges in a rapid trial with more than 10 other individuals, according to a petition created by UT physics professor Herbert Berk asking the Iranian government to give Kokabee a fair trial. The petition also said he did not have access to a lawyer and was given little to no time to defend himself in court.

Berk’s petition has received 518 signatures so far, and he plans to submit it to the Iranian government in roughly two weeks.

To access the petition asking the Iranina government to give Omid Kokabee a fair retrial go to: http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/fair-retrial-for-omid-kokabee/signatures.html

A new charge has been filed against Omid Kokabee, a former UT physics doctorate student who was jailed in Iran last year, this time for teaching other inmates.

According to Kokabee’s attorney, Saeed Khalili, the Iranian government has added an additional 91 days to Kokabee’s original 10-year sentence for earning illegal money after Kokabee was paid by other inmates to teach them English, Spanish, French and physics.

Kokabee was originally arrested in Iran in February 2011 while he was visiting family. He was charged with conspiring with foreign countries in plots against the Iranian government and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Following his arrest, international protest ensued over the charges and subsequent trial process.

According to a petition created by UT physics professor Herbert Berk asking the Iranian government to give Kokabee a fair trial, Kokabee was convicted of the original charges in a rapid trial with more than 10 other individuals. The petition also said he did not have access to a lawyer, and was given little to no time to defend himself in court.

Kokabee has denied all charges against him and lost his final appeal against the original charges in August.

Berk is a member of the Committee on International Freedom of Scientists of the American Physical Society, an organization which works to protect the rights of scientists. He has been acting with other members of the organization in support of Kokabee.

Berk’s petition for Kokabee, which started in June, has gained 474 signatures. Berk said he plans to send the petition to the Iranian government in about two weeks.

Along with representatives from other organizations including American Association for the Advancement of Science, APS Physics and Amnesty International, Berk has scheduled an event titled “From UT to Evin Prison: Case of Omid Kokabee discussed” for Wednesday in the Applied Computational Engineering and Sciences Building in room 2.302 at 7:30 p.m.

The event will feature Dr. Arash Alaei and his brother Dr. Kamiar Alaei. Both are HIV and AIDS researchers who were recently released from the same prison Kokabee is in now. Arash Alaei said he got to know Kokabee while in prison.

The brothers were released by the Iranian government after international protest over their imprisonment grew. Berk said at this point, public pressure is one of Kokabee’s best options for justice, as he has lost his final appeal and such pressure has worked to free other prisoners in the past.

The Alaeis plan to share their experiences at the event and discuss the political situation in Iran.

Berk said the Iranian government has shown a pattern of unfair persecution of scientists whose work they fear may negatively affect their government, sometimes filing charges that seem random and unfounded.

Berk said he hopes the event will urge the UT community to show increased support for Kokabee.

While other U.S. universities have made statements in support of Kokabee, including the State University of New York-Albany School of Public Health and the Ohio State University’s School of Public Health, UT has not taken an official stance on Kokabee’s situation.

UT President William Powers Jr. attempted to gain permission to release a statement advocating for Kokabee this past summer but was prohibited by

UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, who cited a rule that only the board president or UT System chancellor may comment on “matters of a political or obviously controversial nature, which represent an official position of the UT System or any institution or department thereof.”

Cigarroa said he does not feel it is appropriate for the University to take an official stance on Kokabee’s situation, but he suggested members of the public work with human rights organizations to advocate for Kokabee.

Printed on Wednesday, November 14, 2012 as: Professor petitions in support of Kokabee

To access the petition asking the Iranina government to give Omid Kokabee a fair retrial go to: http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/fair-retrial-for-omid-kokabee/signatures.html

As a former UT doctoral student remains jailed in Iran, UT administrators continue to refuse to take an official stance on his imprisonment.

Omid Kokabee, a former UT physics doctoral student who was arrested in Iran while visiting family in February of 2011, lost his final appeal in Iranian court last month. He had been brought up on charges of conspiring with foreign countries in plots against the Iranian government and sentenced to 10 years in prison. In a statement released Tuesday, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said his decision not to release an official statement in Kokabee’s defense still stands, but he does urge community members to pursue support for Kokabee elsewhere.

Kokabee has continually denied all charges against him

Herbert Berk, UT physics professor and member of the Committee on International Freedom of Scientists of the American Physical Society, said now that Kokabee has lost his final appeal, the most plausible way to bring about justice for him would be a mass showing of support to put pressure on the Iranian government to treat him fairly.

“It just has to come from international pressure,” Berk said.

Berk began an online petition in June urging the Iranian government to review Kokabee’s case fairly, a measure he hoped would lead to his release. The petition has 323 signatures so far.

Berk said it is still unclear why the Iranian government has targeted Kokabee

Widespread belief that Kokabee was wrongly accused of those charges and faced an unfair trial has led to an international campaign to bring him justice.

Advocates for Kokabee’s freedom include several highly-respected academic entities, including University of Oslo, American Society for Photobiology and the Committee on International Freedom of Scientists of the American Physical Society.

Berk’s petition cites some of the factors he believes led to an unfair trial for Kokabee

“We find it very difficult to believe the charges he has been convicted of, charges which he has denied under intense pressure. His conviction occurred after a rapid hearing that convicted more than 10 individuals, with little time to present a cogent defense,” the petition read.

In response to Kokabee’s plight, UT President William Powers, Jr. attempted to gain permission to release a statement advocating for Kokabee this past summer but was prohibited by the UT System Board of Regents. Cigarroa cited a rule that only the board president or UT System chancellor may comment on “matters of a political or obviously controversial nature, which represent an official position of the UT System or any institution or department thereof.”

Cigarroa then said he did not feel it appropriate for the UT System to take a position in Kokabee’s defense

“We have great sympathy for the plight of Omid Kokabee,” Cigarroa said in July. “As I mentioned in a July 3 letter to President Powers, we are personally sympathetic, but believe it is not a matter upon which it is appropriate for the UT System to take an official position. I also suggested reaching out to human rights organizations, including the National Academies’ Committee on Human Rights in an effort to seek assistance in promoting the petition led by physics professor Herbert Berk to release Mr. Kokabee.”

Berk said he feels the University is capable of releasing such a statement, and he sees their refusal as a major roadblock for Kokabee.

“There is a limit to what [the Committee on International Freedom] can do, and we have done a lot. But it would be good to get the support of the major institutions in our country, and UT is one of them,” Berk said. “Not getting the support in this particular case is very disappointing. It hurts our attempts.”

Berk said there have been multiple cases of academics being unjustly jailed in Iran who were subsequently released as a result of public pressure

Dr. Arash Alaei is one of those cases.

Alaei, an HIV and AIDS researcher, was imprisoned by the Iranian government from 2008 to 2011, during which time he was jailed with Kokabee for several months. Alaei was accused of conspiring to overthrow the Iranian government and sentenced to a six-year prison term. With international support from academic Alaei said that kind of support is what Kokabee desperately needs at this time.

“I think the best approach would be to involve the media and campaign for him,” Alaei said.

Alaei said the Iranian government has jailed several people without any reason in recent years, and it is commonplace in Iran for prisoners to be denied basic legal rights such as adequate access to their attorney.

In Alaei’s case, support for him in the U.S. included the dean of Harvard University’s School of Public Health, the State University of New York-Albany School of Public Health and the Ohio State University’s School of Public Health. Ohio State University is one of UT’s 11 peer institutions.

Earlier this month, the UT Board of Regents denied President Bill Powers Jr.’s request to make an official statement about Iran’s imprisonment of Omid Kokabee, a UT physics graduate student. The Regents cited a rule in the Rules and Regulations of the Board of Regents that prohibits university personnel from making official statements on behalf of the university that relate to political or controversial issues.

A bright, promising physics student — who was recognized as such by both Iranian and U.S. scientists — Kokabee was arrested and detained in his native Iran in February 2011. After a brief trial, during which the prosecution presented few facts, an Iranian court sentenced Kokabee to 10 years imprisonment for “communicating with a hostile government” and “illegal earnings.”

Kokabee, who completed his undergraduate education in Iran, came to UT in the fall of 2010 to earn a doctoral degree in quantum optics. During his first winter break, Kokabee went to Tehran to visit his family. Iranian authorities arrested him at the airport before he boarded his return flight to America. Kokabee was taken to Evin Prison, in northwestern Iran, where he was put in solitary confinement. During his May 2012 trial, Iranian state-controlled television broadcast eerie footage of Kokabee’s fellow prisoners thanking the Iranian government for arresting them and begging for clemency. Kokabee denied all charges against him.

Worldwide, members of the science community have denounced Kokabee’s arrest and the punishment levied against him. After Kokabee’s trial, the Rector of the University of Oslo, Ole Petter Otterson, sent an open letter to the Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, asking that Kokabee receive a fair trial.

But at UT, the only official response to Kokabee’s unjust circumstances has been silence.

In late June, President Powers attempted to change that. Powers wrote to the Board of Regents, seeking a waiver to the rule that prevents him from speaking out about political or controversial issues in his capacity as university president.

In response, Chancellor of the Board Francisco Cigarroa denied Powers’ request, writing that only the board president or UT system chancellor may comment upon “matters of a political or obviously controversial nature, which represent an official position of the UT system or any institution or department thereof.” The underlying logic of the rule: If other university personnel — Powers ­— take formal, public positions of a political nature, their view may be confused as being the official position of the public institution, according to Anthony de Bruyn, a UT System spokesman. Cigarroa encouraged Powers to reach out to human rights groups on his own. The rule cited by Cigarroa would allow Powers to do this so long as he did not claim to do so in his capacity as president of UT.

With the trial and imprisonment of Omid Kokabee, a physicist’s career and a fellow student’s life has been arbitrarily torn asunder. What makes sense about an official at a university in Oslo being more liberated to speak up against the injustice of Kokabee’s circumstances than the president of Kokabee’s own university? Is the Board of Regents’ rule-following really a nose-thumbing gesture directed at President Powers, who has sparred with the board about separate issues in recent months?

If yes, the Board of Regents has played a card that reflects poorly on it and UT. By effectively silencing UT’s institutional voice about Kokabee, the Board of Regents allows the school to join the side of Kokabee’s captors, courtroom judge and those dominant in the Iranian government who favor silencing political discourse and individual rights.

Historically, university presidents exercising their First Amendment rights have injected more intelligence into all sorts of debates and by doing so, raised the profile of their schools. Nicholas Butler, who served as president of Columbia University in New York from 1902 to 1945, advised American presidents, campaigned for Prohibition, played a significant role in Republican politics and won a Nobel Peace Prize for his campaign against war as an appropriate, diplomatic action. Before he became U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson, as president of Princeton University between 1902 and 1910, fought what he thought was a culture of elitism and smallness at the school, and sought to enlarge students’ worldview at the same time as he enlarged the university.

Closer to home, UT had its own champion of the bully pulpit: former university president Homer Price Rainey, who raised his voice for academic freedom.

But the conclusion of Rainey’s tenure left our school with a problematic legacy. In 1944, Rainey defended an English professor’s right to teach John Dos Passos’ novel “USA.” The Board of Regents responded to his outspokenness by firing Rainey. Subsequently, Rainey received national credit for his courage and, according to the UT Faculty Council’s website, became “a symbol for academic freedom on the campus in the decades that followed.” The episode marked UT as a school governed by an intolerant board.

In 2012, times have changed. Nationwide, few university presidents, in between their fundraising obligations, enter political debates with gusto. But nonetheless the Board of Regents should take lessons from its own history and remember that freedom of former university professors to add their voice to the national and international dialogue speaks to everything worth defending in this country and absent in Iran.

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.’”