Herbert L. Berk is chairman of the American Physical Society’s Committee on International Freedom of Scientists.
As the Iran nuclear deal has marched forward from negotiations to agreement to implementation, a University of Texas graduate student in physics named Omid Kokabee has sat in Tehran’s Evin Prison, where he has languished for nearly five years for the crime of refusing to engage in scientific research that he deems harmful to humanity.
As an engineering physics student in Iran, Kokabee worked in the rapidly expanding field of laser technology. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree and several years of industrial laboratory experience, he was accepted into the physics graduate program at the University of Texas but was unable to attend due to visa issues. Instead, he enrolled in the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona, under the tutelage of Majid Ebrahim-Zadeh, an Iranian scientist working on laser development and the president of Radiantis, a company manufacturing state-of-the-art infrared lasers. One possible application of this technology is the enrichment of uranium to produce the high-grade fissile material necessary for nuclear reactors and weapons.
In 2010, after completing his master’s degree in Barcelona, Kokabee sought to pursue his doctorate at the University of Texas, and this time he was able to enter the United States. During winter break in December 2010, he traveled to Iran to visit his ailing mother. While there, government scientists offered him a position working on security and military research, something Kokabee had repeatedly turned down before. He again refused. Then, while attempting to return to Texas in January 2011, he was detained by Iranian authorities, who offered him freedom from incarceration if he agreed to work for the government. Once again, he said no. Subsequently, Kokabee was convicted in the Islamic Revolutionary Court of collaborating with an enemy of Iran and sentenced to a 10-year prison term.
In a letter from prison, Kokabee said that if he had accepted the government position, he would forever be a hostage because of the military secrets he would acquire. This is a remarkable insight from an individual who at the time was not yet 30. “Is it a sin that I don’t want, under any circumstances, to get involved in security and military activities?” Kokabee asked.
Last fall, Iran’s Supreme Court ruled that the charges against Kokabee were flawed and vacated his conviction. But the Revolutionary Court refuses to recognize the Supreme Court’s authority, and Kokabee remains in prison. About a year ago, Kokabee was moved from housing with other political prisoners and is now held in a tightly packed cell with about 20 other inmates, many of whom are ordinary convicts. He has been denied reading material previously available to him, as well as a reading lamp. More alarming, his health has deteriorated tremendously. Those who favor Kokabee’s release only want him to fulfill his potential to advance scientific progress. Those who believe that Kokabee’s actions were somehow treacherous to Iran need to acknowledge that he has served nearly five years for his “misdeeds” and that his death could inspire unrest in Iran. It is in no one’s interest for Kokabee to become a martyr.
The world scientific community has mobilized on Kokabee’s behalf. He has received the Andrei Sakharov Prize from the American Physical Society for “his courage in refusing to use his physics knowledge to work on projects that he deemed harmful to humanity, in the face of extreme physical and psychological pressure.” The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) gave him its Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award, and 33 Nobel Prize winners in physics have petitioned Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, for his release. Amnesty International has designated Kokabee a prisoner of conscience.
In a letter accepting the AAAS’s Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award, Kokabee declared his innocence and noted the “shock” of being long imprisoned “without any legal justification.” He said, “Scientists are responsible for their work and its impact on society and the future of humanity, just as a mother protects her child and feels responsible in raising her properly. Scientists have a responsibility to refuse cooperation in any project which is harmful to society.”
Now, Kokabee desperately needs wider recognition and support from the general public and government officials at the highest level. Accordingly, the American Physical Society’s Committee on International Freedom of Scientists calls upon Secretary of State John F. Kerry and President Obama, along with their counterparts in the partner-nations of the nuclear weapons treaty with Iran, to press Iran for the release of Omid Kokabee — a prisoner of conscience.