Eugene Chudnovsky

UT graduate student faces trial Iran

UT physics graduate student Omid Kokabee  plead not guilty to communicating with a hostile government and receiving illegitimate funds Tuesday at his trial in Iran. Reports relayed to Eugene Chudnovsky, physics professor and member of the American Physics Society, predicted a grim outlook for his trial.

“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.

“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 this was the first case of a student being detained for obtaining a United States visa.

“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. There are many Iranian students who are exactly in the same situation and are scared.”

John Keto, director of the UT physics graduate program 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.

People in the physics department are working delicately with scientific organizations to help advocate for Kokabee’s release.

“A serious outcry from the US may have been interpreted by the Iranian courts as interference  and evidence confirming the allegations of Omid’s working with the US government.” Keto said.  “This was why for the first four months Omid’s family requested that we keep our knowledge of the situation confidential.”

Panel discussions and events continue to take place in support for Omid Kokabee, the UT physics graduate student who many are saying was unjustly sentenced to ten years in prison in Iran.

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology panel discussion took place Thursday to alert the academic community about Kokabee‘s situation. Eugene Chudnovsky, co-chair on the Committee of Concerned Scientists, spoke along with Kamiar and Arash Alaei, two brothers charged in Iran in 2008 for communicating with enemy governments and sentenced to prison. Like Kokabee, the brothers pleaded innocent at their trial.

Chudnovsky said he spoke at the event about what he knew of Kokabee, while the brothers spoke of their experience in Iranian prison.

“People there will spread the word, and they will tell their friends about Kokabee,” Chudnovsky said.

Another event is scheduled at the International Workshop on Nanomagnetism and Superconductivity on July 3 in Coma-Ruga, Spain.

Kokabee was arrested in December 2010 while visiting family in Iran. After being held in prison for 15 months, Kokabee was sentenced to ten years in prison for allegedly conspiring with foreign countries in plots against the Iranian government. Sources close to Kokabee said he was not given the right to a lawyer and his sentencing took only a few minutes.

Chudnovsky said Kokabee was in high spirits despite being imprisoned, in part thanks to the international support he is gaining. Chudnovsky said Kokabee is still studying physics in prison, and he is tutoring other prisoners in subjects like math, physics, French, Spanish and English.

“I think it will help him to manage all the hardship of the time he has to spend in prison,” Chudnovsky said.

Along with these events, petitions on behalf of Kokabee have continued to circulate the web. The petition from the American Physical Society’s Committee on International Freedom of Scientists currently has almost 20 signatures while the Committee of Concerned Scientists’ petition has over 135 signatures.

Physics graduate student Omid Kokabee will remain illegally imprisoned in Iran under espionage charges for at least another year with no court hearing or release date in sight, said Eugene Chudnovsky, a physics professor at Herbert H. Lehman College.

Kokabee was imprisoned while on a visit to his native Iran in January 2011 under charges of leaking Iranian nuclear secrets to the United States. He pleaded not guilty to the charges on Oct. 4, 2011, but was not allowed to testify in court and simply exchanged a written letter with the judge. After the hearing, Kokabee was sent directly back to prison and the judge told his defense to build a better case while awaiting a new hearing that would be scheduled at the judge’s will.

Last month, Kokabee’s second hearing was rescheduled for Jan. 31, 2012 but was inexplicably cancelled. Chudnovsky said communication barriers and tight security measures in Iran make receiving updated news about Kokabee difficult.

“The hearing scheduled for Jan. 31 was cancelled at the last minute by the judge without establishing a new hearing date, which is against the law in Iran,” Chudnovsky wrote in an email interview with The Daily Texan. Chudnovsky said Kokabee has been in prison for an entire year.

Chudnovsky said he received news about the trial, as well as Kokabee’s second letter to Ayatollah Larijani, head of the Islamic Republic judiciary. He said the letter is a poor translation from Farsi, but the message is clear.

The allegations, with respect to requests and practice from the authority, are completely incompatible and inconsistent with any logic and common sense, Kokabee wrote in the translated letter.

“For someone who does not have any activity outside the University and the academic world and [is] not familiar with world politics, what sense does it associate,” said Kokabee in the translated letter. “And what purpose lies behind the accusations and pressures?”

In the letter, Kokabee said he refused to put up with threats and a disregard for the country’s laws and regulations. Kokabee demanded in the letter the basic rights of a prisoner and conditions for a reasonable and impartial court.

“As now as a natural reaction to a prisoner who has insulted his dignity and basic human rights, I declare that after this I’m not willing to go to court and defend myself, if you forced me to take court,” said Kokabee in the translated letter. “I will not participate in humiliating court and without jurisdiction.”

Printed on Thursday, February 2, 2012 as: Omid Kokabee stuck in Iran prison without next trial date

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UT physics graduate student Omid Kokabee's second court hearing for espionage charges in Iran was scheduled for Tuesday, but those in contact with him are still not certain if it happened, said Eugene Chudnovsky, a physics professor at Lehman College.

Kokabee was imprisoned while on a visit to his native country Iran in January 2011 under charges of leaking Iranian nuclear secrets to the United States. He pled not guilty to the charges on Oct. 4, 2011 but was not allowed to testify and simply exchanged a written letter with the judge.

Chudnovsky said he was told the hearing was scheduled for Tuesday but he will not know if it happened or what the results were for a few days because of communication barriers.

“It may also happen that the hearing didn't take place,” Chudnovsky said. “It may be that the judge postponed the hearing, but if it took place we will hear back about it soon.”

Attached with the news about the trial was Kokabee's second letter to Ayatollah Larijani, head of the judicial system in Iran, Chudnovsky said. He said the letter was a poor translation from Farsi but the message is clear.

The allegations with respect to requests and practice from the authority are completely incompatible and inconsistent with any logic and common sense, said Kokabee in the translated letter.

“For someone who does not have any activity outside the University and the academic world and [is] not familiar with world politics, what sense does it associate,” said Kokabee in the letter. “And what purpose lies behind the accusations and pressures?”

In the letter, Kokabee said he refuses to put up with threats and a disregard for the country's laws and regulations. He said he demands the basic rights of a prisoner and conditions for a reasonable and impartial court.

“Now as a natural reaction to a prisoner who has insulted his dignity and basic human rights, I declare that after this I'm not willing to go to court and defend myself, if you forced me to take court,” said Kokabee in the translated letter. “I will not participate in humiliating court and without jurisdiction.”

UT physics graduate student Omid Kokabee remains imprisoned indefinitely in Iran despite pleading not guilty to espionage charges in an Iranian court.

Kokabee was imprisoned while on a visit to his native country Iran in Jan. 2011 under charges of leaking Iranian nuclear secrets to the United States. He pled not guilty to the charges on Oct. 4, 2011.

Kokabee was not allowed to testify on his own behalf and was only allowed to exchange written messages with the judge, said Eugene Chudnovsky, a physics professor at Herbert H. Lehman College. He said the Iranian government sent him back to prison and asked his defense to build a better case while awaiting a new hearing that could come at any time.

“My assumption is that they are pressing him really hard to get some admission of guilt,” Chudnovsky said. “They are trying to build a better case and no one knows how long it is going to take.”

Chudnovsky said he writes to those in contact with Kokabee every two weeks for updated information on his case, but it is a tedious process because he does not want to bring any negative attention to Kokabee during this time.

“The people who have a connection with Kokabee do not want to be identified because they are afraid something bad might happen,” Chudnovsky said.

Physics junior John Beoris said Omid’s situation is extremely complicated because many people are misinformed about the work that physicists do and the language barrier makes communicating his innocence difficult.

“Physicists are always at risk of knowing information that is considered sensitive,” Beoris said. “But [Kokabee] worked in optics and most of that research has no practical application. It is usually used to develop things later on. I don’t believe anything he was doing is potentially threatening.”

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'