APS News

Retrial Granted to Jailed Iranian Physicist

Imprisoned Iranian physicist Omid Kokabee, now suffering serious illness, will be granted a retrial after spending more than three years incarcerated in Iran.

October 14, 2014  |  Michael Lucibella

Omid Kokabee

Omid Kokabee

Imprisoned Iranian physicist Omid Kokabee will be granted a retrial after spending more than three years incarcerated in Iran. A branch of the Iranian supreme court has agreed to accept Kokabee's appeal and revisit his case, possibly clearing the way for his release within a few months.

"Acceptance of the retrial request means that the top judicial authority has deemed Dr. Omid Kokabee's [initial] verdict against the law," Kokabee's lawyer, Saeed Khalili was quoted as saying on the website of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. "The path has been paved for a retrial in his case, and God willing, proving his innocence."

Kokabee, a citizen of Iran who at the time was studying at the University of Texas, Austin, was first arrested at the Tehran airport in January 2011. After spending 15 months in prison waiting for a trial, including more than a month in solitary confinement, he was convicted by Iran's Revolutionary Court of "communicating with a hostile government" and receiving "illegitimate funds" in the form of his college loans. He was sentenced to ten years in prison without ever talking to his lawyer or being allowed testimony in his defense.

Kokabee said in an open letter the reason for his detention is because he's steadfastly refused to help Iran's military. Earlier this year, Kokabee received the APS Sakharov prize for his unwillingness "to work on projects that he deemed harmful to humanity, in the face of extreme physical and psychological pressure."

The recent ruling by Iran's Supreme Court branch is a positive development for the imprisoned scientist. By accepting the retrial, the court effectively throws out his previous conviction and will reconsider both the conviction and the sentence. At present Kokabee is still in prison, but those close to him hope to secure a medical furlough for him because of a recent flare-up of medical issues related to his incarceration.

"In other cases, for instance, the courts have decided that the new sentence would be for time already served," said Elise Auerbach, the Iran country specialist for Amnesty International. "The most important thing is that he gets out of prison and gets the care he needs."

Over the three years of his imprisonment, he's lost four teeth and developed heart, kidney, and stomach problems.

The court's decision to retry the case hinges on the fact that Kokabee was convicted under the section of Iranian law that covers interactions with "enemy states." Though there are no formal diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran, and ongoing contact is not particularly friendly, to qualify as an "enemy state," a country has to be at war with Iran.

"Technically, legally, the Iranian government is not in a state of war with the United States," Auerbach said. "It's sort of a technical argument, revolving around a technical point, but it does provide a opportunity to legally void the sentence."

The court's decision comes at a time when international organizations have stepped up pressure on Iran to release Kokabee. Twenty-eighty physics Nobel laureates signed a petition calling for his release organized by APS, the Committee of Concerned Scientists, Amnesty International, and the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Amnesty has also sponsored a petition drive that has collected more than 14,000 signatures calling for his release while APS sent a letter to the president of Iran asking for leniency.

Starting in late October, the United Nations will begin their universal periodic review of human rights in Iran, where the four groups plan to deliver the petitions to representatives of the government of Iran in person. "[The Iranian government] would never have [made] this decision in the absence of a lot of pressure," Auerbach said.

Though ultimately the court could still decide against Kokabee, the fact that they are willing to revisit the case was a cause for optimism.

"To me this is a very helpful sign. It's a sign that the authorities are looking for a way out of this situation," Auerbach said. "I think the stars are aligned at this point. I think the Iranian government wants to make a goodwill gesture."