February 20, 2017

After Five Years in Prison, An Appeal for Omid Kokabee’s Release

Omid Kokabee in a hospital

Omid Kokabee

On the fifth anniversary of Omid Kokabee‘s imprisonment in Iran, CCS appeals to President Rouhani for his unconditional release. Kokabee, a Iranian doctoral student in physics at the University of Texas — Austin, was arrested in 2011 while visiting his family in Iran.

On August 20, 2015, Omid Kokabee turned 33, it was his fifth birthday in prison. Two months later he developed anemia, abdominal bleeding and severe pain, and was rushed to Tehran’s Taleghani hospital. He currently remains in a hospital.

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Omid Kokabee’s Facebook page

January 30, 2016

President Hassan Rouhani
The Islamic Republic of Iran
c/o H.E. Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee
Ambassador of Iran to the United Nations
Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran
to the United Nations
622 Third Avenue, 34th Floor
New York, NY 10017

Your Excellency:

The end of January 2016 marks the fifth anniversary of imprisonment of Omid Kokabee in Iran. At the time of his arrest he was visiting his parents on a winter break from his doctoral studies in laser physics at the University of Texas in Austin. He spent 15 months in solitary confinement and was subsequently sentenced to 10 years in prison “for communicating with a hostile government” (meaning the United States) and “illegal earnings” (meaning his doctoral student stipend at UT – Austin). In December 2014, the Supreme Court of Iran ruled that the case documents contained no evidence of any crime — but this has not resulted in Kokabee’s release.

Kokabee was born to a family of a teacher in Northern Iran. At age 18 he was part of a small group of Iranian students that performed exceptionally well on the country’s nationwide college entrance exams and was honored by a meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader. In 2000, he entered Sharif University of Science and Technology,
From which he graduated with distinction in Applied Physics and Mechanical Engineering in 2005. He received training in Laser Physics. His advisor, Professor Rasoul Bonabi, one of Iran’s top experts on lasers, spoke about Omid as a person of extraordinary talents and great future. After graduation, Kokabee was accepted into the Physics Doctoral Program at UT – Austin but was unable to secure a student visa, and in the following two years worked at the Laboratory of Gas Spectroscopy in Tehran.

In 2007, Kokabee entered the Masters Program in Photonics at the
Polytechnic University in Barcelona, where he studied for 3 years and published numerous research papers on lasers. In 2010, he was finally granted a U.S. student visa and went to UT – Austin, where he started his doctoral studies, supported by the Graduate Fellowship and Teaching Assistantship for Professor Greg Sitz. His unfortunate mistake was his trip back to Iran in Winter 2011, where he disappeared without a trace. In May 2011, Nature magazine broke the news about a missing physicist in Iran. The Committee of Concerned Scientists (“CCS”) learned that Kokabee’s trial was scheduled for July 16, 2011. CCS appealed to Iran’s Supreme Leader, calling Kokabee’s arrest “a grave mistake.” On July 15, 2011, articles in Nature and Physics World cited CCS’ appeal. The trial was postponed. Presidents of four optical societies wrote to the Supreme Leader, on Kokabee’s behalf. His case was entered in the Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, which was submitted to the UN General Assembly.

On May 12, 2012, Omid Kokabee stood trial together with a group of
twelve unrelated prisoners summarily accused of working for Israeli
and U.S. intelligence services. The prosecution presented no facts of any crime committed by Kokabee. He denied all charges and was subsequently sentenced to a 10-year prison term by Judge Abolqasem Salavati. In the months that followed a number of Presidents of Professional Societies, as well as university presidents, appealed to the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, asking the Supreme Leader to overturn the verdict. In February 2013, the news came that Kokabee developed kidney decease in prison and required hospitalization. It was never granted. The same month Judge Salavati added 91 days to his sentence for teaching languages, science, and math to the inmates. CCS issued a strong protest on its website.

In April 2013, Nature magazine released copies of two of Omid’s letters — to a colleague and to a friend — in which he disclosed that after graduation from Sharif University he declined numerous offers of research and managerial positions in Iran’s military organizations, including the offer made to him just prior to his arrest by the Office of Mohammad Ghannadi-Maragheh of the AEOI. The Committee of Concerned Scientists wrote to the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Administration (“IAEA”), with copies to the US Secretary of State and to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran: “ … It is a violation of human rights to coerce a scientist to participate in military projects that he does not want to support ….“

In September 2013, the American Physical Society awarded Andrei
Sakharov Prize to Omid Kokabee for “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 following month Amnesty International declared him Prisoner of Conscience. The name of Omid Kokabee acquired international recognition. In October 2014 he received the AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award for “his courageous stand and willingness to endure imprisonment rather than violate his moral stance that his scientific expertise not be used for destructive purposes and for his efforts to provide hope and education to fellow prisoners.” Thirty-three physics Nobel laureates appealed to the Iran’s Supreme Leader on his behalf.

In December 2014 Iran’s Supreme Court accepted the request from
Kokabee’s lawyer to reconsider the case. After studying the case it
issued a ruling stating that “the Lower Court has made an error in understanding and interpreting the Islamic Penal Code and determined inappropriate punishment.” The Supreme Court sent Kokabee’s case to the Appeals Court and ordered a review. One month later the Appeals Court upheld the 10-year sentence without providing any explanation. In the following months hints about possible release of Kokabee came from Dr. Javad Larijani, Iranian mathematician and Secretary of the Human Rights Council on Judiciary, and from Dr. Ali Akbar Salehi, a nuclear physicist, the head of the AEOI and the key negotiator of the nuclear deal with the six world powers. Two days after the deal was signed in July 14, 2015, the Iran’s Supreme Leader pardoned more than 900 prisoners but Kokabee’s name was not among the pardoned.

On August 20, 2015, Omid Kokabee turned 33, it was his fifth birthday in prison. Two months later he developed anemia, abdominal bleeding and severe pain, and was rushed to Tehran’s Taleghani hospital. At the time this letter is written Kokabee remains in a hospital. Doctors are providing him with the best possible treatment using facilities available to them. The Committee of Concerned Scientists welcomes this development and thanks Iranian authorities for allowing medical care for Kokabee. As the relations between Iran and the rest of the world are beginning to improve, we appeal to Iran once again with a request to release Omid Kokabee unconditionally, or on a medical furlough, and allow him to continue his peaceful scientific studies.

The Committee of Concerned Scientists is an independent organization of scientists, physicians, engineers and scholars devoted to the protection and advancement of human rights and scientific freedom for colleagues all over the world.


Joel L. Lebowitz, Paul H. Plotz, Walter Reich,
Eugene M. Chudnovsky, Alexander Greer

Co-Chairs, Committee of Concerned Scientists