University of Texas at Austin: Allow Physics Department to make an official statement on Omid Kokabee

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University of Texas at Austin: Allow Physics Department to make an official statement on Omid Kokabee

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Many in the University of Texas at Austin community are extremely concerned with UT's silence on the case of Omid Kokabee, who was a doctoral student at UT when he was arrested in Iran while visiting his family. He was arrested suddenly without clear explanation, suffered a prolonged detainment at Tehran's Evin Prison, and was convicted without evidence, suggesting a disregard of international standards of due process, fair trial and detention, as guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is signatory.  This case has broad implications for the international community at UT – due to the arbitrary nature of the arrest, many Iranians fear visiting their families. Furthermore, a former inmate with Kokabee recently brought to light the fact that his health is deteriorating and the Iranian government has been denying him medical care, making his case much more urgent. 

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Omid Kokabee is a talented physicist in the field of optics with a Masters in photonics from the Institute for Photonic Studies in Barcelona, Spain and a strong interest in high-tech startups.  He was just beginning his studies at UT Austin before his arrest at the Tehran airport in February 2011 while attempting to travel back to Austin to start his second semester. He was taken to Iran's Evin prison, a common destination for political prisoners including journalists, academics, researchers, and political activists.

After Kokabee's trial was repeatedly delayed for over a year, Kokabee was convicted on May 13, 2012 on charges of conspiring with enemies of Iran and receiving “illegitimate funds.” He was tried en masse along with 14 other defendants, 13 of whom made videotaped confessions that were broadcast on Iranian state television, and many of whom received death sentences. However, Omid Kokabee refused to make any public confession and has stated his innocence even under intense pressure while in custody. It has been reported by reliable sources that during the trial no evidence was presented against Kokabee, and his lawyer stated that he was not permitted to meet with him. Many organizations, including the American Physical Society, have attempted to clarify that the contacts alleged in his charges actually consisted of normal professional interactions with international scholars, and that the allegedly illegitimate funds he received concern a publicly accounted for scholarship for his graduate studies.

The judge who presided over the case, Abolghasem Salavati, has presided over many high-profile cases in Iran, including that of three Americans who were arrested while hiking along the Iran-Iraq border in 2009 and charged as spies, as well as the trial of an ex-U.S. Marine who was arrested in 2011 and is currently awaiting a retrial over the death sentence issued by Salavati against him in 2012. Salavati also gave death sentences to numerous Iranians involved in the election protests of 2009.  The Iranian government has arbitrarily imprisoned many academics in recent years.

In addition to his charges, Iran's government has forcefully tried to gain Kokabee's collaboration on their nuclear program by threatening him and his family, but he has continually declined, writing from prison:

“I have not committed any wrongs and have no idea about the secret activities and interests of the government, yet they treat me like this and have literally taken my entire life and family hostage. What would happen to me if in the future I agree on collaborating with the regime and as a consequence learn about their confidential facts and secrets? What would they take hostage this time to ensure that they can trust me?”

A recent similar case to Kokabee's involves The Alaei brothers, two HIV researchers who were arrested and charged with collaboration with hostile nations, despite the fact that their research activity with the United States only involved academic research on HIV. They were held at the same prison under the same charges as Kokabee. Many scientific and academic organizations and institutions spoke out on behalf of the brothers, and they were released before the end of their sentence. According to the Daily Texan, “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.'” (Regent Rule 10403, Section 10). 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. While Cigarroa's concerns are understandable, we feel that a statement from UT would be appropriate given the unfair and illegal treatment of a student and the impact that a statement could have. The Department of Physics would also be able to clarify Kokabee's funding and academic engagements while at UT to clear up misconceptions in Iranian media that he was a post-doctoral nuclear scientist, which are verifiably false.

We consider this a matter of an emergency nature, as Omid Kokabee's health, freedom, and life are gravely at stake. Many other academic organizations and universities around the world have been actively engaged in calling for Kokabee's fair treatment and release, including the American Physical Society, Ohio State University, The University of New York Albany School of Public Health, Association of Graduate Students of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering of the University of Campinas, The American Society of Photobiology, the University of Oslo, The International Society for Optics and Photonics, and several more. The American Physical Society's Committee on International Freedom of Scientists issued a letter calling on the Supreme Leader of Iran to release Omid Kokabee, stating, “This committee believes that he has committed no crime, and his arrest will only discourage future scientific collaboration.”  Despite this support, UT has remained silent. 

This case has consequences for other students as well. Due to the arbitrary nature of the arrest, such cases could repeat for other international students.  In fact, many Iranian students at UT report concern for their safety and have refrained from visiting their family in Iran since the Omid Kokabee incident. We are calling for UT to join the numerous other universities, academic organizations and institutions around the world who are calling for fair treatment and release of Omid Kokabee.

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