Herbert Berk

With thousands of people having signed a petition asking for the release of Omid Kokabee from a prison in Iran, he was recently granted a retrial from the Iranian judicial system. 

Kokabee, a former UT physics graduate student, has been imprisoned in his home country of Iran since 2011. The petition was turned into the Iranian Mission at the United Nations in New York City on Tuesday, according to Amnesty International. 

Physics professor Herbert Berk said the petition, signed by 31 Physics Nobel Laureates, could help get Kokabee released from prison.  

“Historically, if people are interested in people in jail, it usually makes a difference to make a statement,” said Berk, who also serves as chairman for the Committee on International Freedom of Scientists. “It should make a difference.”

According to Amnesty International, thousands of people signed petitions for Kokabee’s release. Berk said this publicity could already be helping Kokabee, as the Iranian Supreme Court has made a ruling declaring Kokabee will get another trial.

“Very recently, the Iranian Supreme Court ruled that Omid’s conviction should be vacated because the procedures were not correct,” Berk said. “We’re expecting in a month or two he be freed, and they’ll retry him and hopefully release him.”

Berk said the conditions in the prison are very poor, and Kokabee is in need of medical attention.

“Omid is ill because conditions are poor, and he is facing ailments,” Berk said. “He has kidney problems; he had heart palpitations, and he is losing weight. We have asked the Iranian government, while we’re waiting for the retrial, to at least give him a medical  furlough, so he can be treated of these diseases.”

Berk said the Iranian government poached Kokabee in an effort to get him to contribute to the country’s military research. 

“He chose to be in jail rather than do something that he feels is harmful to humanity,” Berk said. “And that is a very scientific, responsible thing to do.”

Before being imprisoned in 2011, Kokabee studied photonics and laser optics at the University.

UT spokesman Gary Susswein declined to comment on the award and petition.

A group of demonstrators gathered Wednesday on the RLM bridge to raise awareness for Omid Kokabee, a former UT physics graduate student who has been imprisoned in Iran for almost four years.

The group gathered in the shade of the building Kokabee would have returned to for class after visiting his family in Iran. Physics professor Herbert Berk spoke at the demonstration about the circumstances of Kokabee’s incarceration.

“It’s hard to understand what it was, and there was no trial to really shed any light because, at the trial, the judge looked at him and declared him guilty and put him in jail for 10 years,” Berk said.

Berk serves as chairman for the Committee on International Freedom of Scientists, an organization that fights for imprisoned scientists. He said the reasons for Kokabee’s imprisonment are unusual.

“He was declared innocent of some of the [original] charges, but then they convicted him of conspiring with the United States government and getting illegal income, which is, as far as we can tell, the income from being a TA here,” Berk said.

Berk said Kokabee has lost weight and has come down with different medical afflictions while in the Iranian prison system.

“Omid is under some very bad conditions, and, in fact, he’s been ill for a while,” Berk said. “He has several different things, like heart palpitations, and he has trouble with kidney stones that periodically come, in part, because of the poor water that’s there.”

Throughout the world, Nobel laureates have written petitions asking that Kokabee be set free. Berk said petitions collected by Amnesty International will be delivered to the Iranian representative at the United Nations assembly in a couple of weeks.

Ellen Hutchison, a former UT student and acquaintance of Kokabee, said that the demonstration is a powerful way to spread the message and encourage others to speak out.

“Public awareness really does help the situation of political prisoners. Anything [the public] can do to increase awareness would be helpful,” Hutchison said. “This makes a statement not only about Omid, but about the freedom of scientists to study what they believe is beneficial to society.”

At the demonstration, white doves were released from the bridge that had been trained to fly out and return to their home. Rebecca Bratton, the business owner that provided the doves, said that the doves represent what everyone hopes for Kokabee.

“White doves represent peace, hope, love and faith, which is very fitting this occasion because it’s what it’s going to take to get Omid back where he needs to be,”
Bratton said. “Once the birds are set free, they return to their home, which is what we want for Omid.”

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.

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.’”