APS News

Omid Kokabee Released After 5 Years in Jail

Iran allows jailed physicist to leave prison on parole

August 30, 2016 | Rachel Gaal

After serving half of his original 10-year sentence in prison, Omid Kokabee has been released on parole. Arrested in Tehran while attempting to fly back to the U.S. after visiting his family, the first year physics doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin was convicted of “communicating with a hostile government.” The 10-year sentence came after 15 months of incarceration in Iran’s Evin prison in Tehran.

Kokabee continued his research and education behind bars — he submitted scientific papers while imprisoned, and local scientific conferences in Iran invited him to present his research (he was refused permission to attend). However, while in Evin prison, Kokabee developed an array of health issues, leading to his recent diagnosis of kidney cancer.

Kokabee wrote to his family from Evin prison saying that he was jailed for repeatedly refusing to agree to Iranian government requests to work on military research. He previously worked on optics at the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) in Barcelona, Spain, and had some experience with certain lasers that, among their many applications, might also be used in the production of enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

His imprisonment gained him worldwide support from human rights activists, including APS’s Committee on International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS). He was awarded the APS Sakharov prize “for his courage in refusing to use his physics knowledge to work on projects that he deemed harmful for humanity…”, and the AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award. Amnesty International organized a petition with 14,000 signatures, including 31 Nobel laureates, which was delivered to the Iranian government naming Kokabee a “prisoner of conscience” and to call for his release.

Despite the unwavering support of international groups, family, and Kokabee’s attorney, the Iranian government had turned down all requests for his release. He recently was granted medical furlough to recover from surgery to remove his cancerous kidney, but the leave was temporary, needing renewal every two weeks. While Kokabee’s lawyer stated on August 29 that he has been granted freedom on parole, the judiciary could revoke the parole, forcing Kokabee to be brought back to prison to serve the remaining three years of his sentence.