Guest Post by Alessandra Buonanno: Nobel Laureates Call for Release of Iranian Student Omid Kokabee

buonannoUsually I start guest posts by remarking on what a pleasure it is to host an article on the topic being discussed. Unfortunately this is a sadder occasion: protesting the unfair detention of Omid Kokabee, a physics graduate student at the University of Texas, who is being imprisoned by the government of Iran. Alessandra Buonanno, who wrote the post, is a distinguished gravitational theorist at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics and the University of Maryland, as well as a member of the Committee on International Freedom of Scientists of the American Physical Society. This case should be important to everyone, but it’s especially important for physicists to work to protect the rights of students who travel from abroad to study our subject.


Omid Kokabee was arrested at the airport of Teheran in January 2011, just before taking a flight back to the University of Texas at Austin, after spending the winter break with his family. He was accused of communicating with a hostile government and after a trial, in which he was denied contact with a lawyer, he was sentenced to 10 years in Teheran’s Evin prison.

According to a letter written by Omid Kokabee, he was asked to work on classified research, and his arrest and detention was a consequence of his refusal. Since his detention, Kokabee has continued to assert his innocence, claiming that several human rights violations affected his interrogation and trial.

Since 2011, we, the Committee on International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS) of the American Physical Society, have protested the imprisonment of Omid Kokabee. Although this case has received continuous support from several scientific and international human rights organizations, the government of Iran has refused to release Kokabee.

Omid Kokabee

Omid Kokabee has received two prestigious awards:

  • The American Physical Society awarded him Andrei Sakharov Prize “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 awarded Kokabee the Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Prize.

Amnesty International (AI) considers Kokabee a prisoner of conscience and has requested his immediate release.

Recently, the Committee of Concerned Scientists (CCS), AI and CIFS, have prepared a letter addressed to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei asking that Omid Kokabee be released immediately. The letter was signed by 31 Nobel-prize laureates. (An additional 13 Nobel Laureates have signed this letter since the Nature blog post. See also this update from APS.)

Unfortunately, earlier last month, Kokabee’s health conditions have deteriorated and he has been denied proper medical care. In response, the President of APS, Malcolm Beasley, has written a letter to the Iranian President Rouhani calling for a medical furlough for Omid Kokabee so that he can receive proper medical treatment. AI has also made further steps and has requested urgent medical care for Kokabee.

Very recently, the Iran’s supreme court has nullified the original conviction of Omid Kokabee and has agreed to reconsider the case. Although this is positive news, it is not clear when the new trial will start. Considering Kokabee’s health conditions, it is very important that he is granted a medical furlough as soon as possible.

More public engagement and awareness is needed to solve this unacceptable case of violation of human rights and freedom of scientific research. You can help by tweeting/blogging about it and responding to this Urgent Action that AI has issued. Please note that the date on the Urgent Action is there to create an avalanche effect; it is not a deadline nor it is the end of action.

Alessandra Buonanno for the American Physical Society’s Committee on International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS).

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20 Responses to Guest Post by Alessandra Buonanno: Nobel Laureates Call for Release of Iranian Student Omid Kokabee

  1. My heart goes out to the plight of the young Mr. Omid Kokabee. It was not his choice to be in the position he finds himself in. He thought he knew his home country and went to visit family only to be arrested for not doing something the authorities want him to do; very sad. However, that is were my sympathies dissolve. I was once a conscientious objector regarding my serving in the US Navy; way toward the end of my enlistment and I was wrong as I found out: there are evil people and countries in this world that will actively seek others out for no good reason to do harm.
    Now I suppose Omid may be concerned about Iran’s possible evil use of weapons, but what about (and I am speaking as an advocate here) all of the other countries, no less than America and it’s scientist’s and armies of physicists that work on weapons of mass destruction. Not all of America’s or the West’s scientists work on progressive science.
    But yet, I know we all want Omid to come back home, here. America absorbs many people and so it seems, Omid belongs here and not in Iran.

  2. John Barrett says:

    Iran must be really desperate. If a grad student wanted to work in a top secret facility in America, they would most likely just be told to go take a hike. This just seems to be another reason why you shouldn’t travel to fundamentalist countries. I would imagine most people wouldn’t have done what Omid Kokabee has done, and America could be training their top scientist as we speak. They themselves may not even realize it yet.

  3. Brett says:

    The climate between America and Iran is a complicated one. One thing that I was happy to see on tv in regards to a movie that’s out right now, produced by an unnamed comedian; was a point made by two Iranian born men, one of whom was imprisoned in the same fashion. The point made was that Iran is not some equivalent evil superpower who knows exactly what they’re up to. They’re ignorant. About as ignorant as you can get. In isolating these dictatorships, we exacerbate the problem by restricting the flow of any new information or knowledge. I hate to make an equivalency, but it is similar to Alex Jones or some ignorant, crazy fool holding someone middle eastern ‘looking’ hostage for the simple assumption that they must be a muslim terrorist. You must teach them that we don’t hate them and that they really shouldn’t hate us. When America kills Iranian scientists whom they think are working on nuclear technology, that qualifies as a hostile government. We are not innocent and this did not appear out of thin air.

    It’s so complicated that leaving a comment is foolish of me. I just think that when you scare an ignorant government, they tend to overreact for a very long time. Who do we know that’s like that? hmm? We’re so alike that we hate each other. If this were a sitcom, America and Iran would be having animalistic sex by now. All it takes is one side to get the stick removed from its’ ass and attempt to communicate with the other, but we’re all too proud or too cowardly to do so. Like NDT likes to allude to; if I were an alien race passing by our planet, I would probably say “nope, no signs of intelligent life here” and keep on moving. It’s pathetic.

  4. Avattoir says:

    It’s a darn good thing we don’t imprison foreign nationals for indefinite time periods in inaccessible unaccountable circumstances for trumped up or no charges based on the most spurious of paranoid takes on what’s meant by ‘national security’ inordinately influenced by those possessed of extremist religiotic bents, is all I can say.

  5. vmarko says:

    Avattoir,

    “…we don’t imprison foreign nationals for indefinite time periods in inaccessible unaccountable circumstances for trumped up or no charges based on the most spurious of paranoid takes on what’s meant by ‘national security’…”

    Oh, you mean Snowden managed to get to Russia, right? So he wasn’t actually imprisoned by the US, right? 🙂

    Seriously, though, these kind of stories are never so black and white. The problem here is that we don’t get to read the story from the perspective of the Iranian government. I know personally a bunch of young Iranian students and scientists that study or work in Europe or US, and they travel back home on a regular basis, without any problems. And out of that whole bunch, the Iraninan government picks this particular one and imprisons him. What, by random? Certainly not, there must have been a reason — we are just not told what it is.

    I am not saying that his imprisonment was fair or deserved. But it is too naive to think of “the evil Irainan government” taking it out on a “good and innocent young scientist” just because they are paranoid, and he just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Real life is never that simple, and we have not been told both sides of the story.

  6. Chris says:

    The problem with Iran is not ‘complicated’ unless you are trying to avoid acknowledging it, and definitely not due to ‘a lack of understanding’ unless you actually think they want weapons grade enriched uranium just to build power plants with. When a government demands that you serve them unconditionally or they will imprison, or kill you without even a trial, that is not a misunderstanding, or ignorant, that’s something quite specific and entirely intentional. The politically incorrect term for it is called ‘evil’.

    The Iranian government has made it quite clear all along what they intended to do, how they will accomplish it, and have been quite busy doing it. Presently, Iran is very intent on acquiring nuclear weapons so they can more effectively ‘convince’ others of the sincerity of their intentions to annihilate their neighbors. The Iranian leaders make no secret of who they will use their nuclear weapons on if given the chance (Big hint, it starts with an ‘I’), and only the truly oblivious don’t know this.
    Willful naivete and a ‘Coexist’ bumper-sticker mentality is not going to resolve this peacefully.

  7. Brother Nihil says:

    Given that Iran is surrounded by U.S. military bases, a massively nuclear-armed Israel and hostile Sunni regimes, and that weak nations in the region tend to get flattened by the Empire (see Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Palestine), whereas nuclear-armed nations tend to be left alone (see North Korea, Russia), it’s just smart policy for Iran to be pursuing nuclear weapons.

    One nation in history has used nuclear weapons, yet they want to arrogate the right to determine who should have them? Sorry, but Iran isn’t some nation of evil villains; they’re a sophisticated civilization with a long, proud history that hasn’t invaded another nation in centuries. Meanwhile, America bombs countries right and left, has by far the world’s largest war machine, but somehow it’s those evil Iranians we need to worry about? Ridiculous!

  8. peterpan says:

    I would like to remind readers to what has happened to David Bohm.To the ignorant- he stood up against government pressure in refusing to testify against his fellow piers. He was not imprissoned, but sadly , had to leave the USA never able to find employment here again.In terms of the light of today- a witchhunt.Then -perfectly reasonoble.

  9. paul kramarchyk says:

    The internal politics of Iran are none of my business. I have several close work colleagues that were born and schooled in Iran (now Canadians) and know enough about Iran to know I don’t want to live there. I also know:
    1) 1953 the CIA and British intelligence service deposed the elected government of Iran and installed Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavi as the Shah of Iran (a puppet of western oil interests).
    2) The United States supported Saddam Hussain with intelligence, trade deals, and dismissed Saddam’s reign of terror and gassing of Kurds as long as Saddam was killing Iranians.

    Given 1 and 2 above, any reaction by Iran is understandable, no matter how unjust and irrational it looks from the west. The country is in convulsive detox, and my bet is it will come out of it a sober world citizen. It may take another 100 years. Although I think the internet will cut that time in half.

    Mr. Omid Kokabee appears to be a bright, promising physicist. However, I learned long ago that “bright, promising physicist” does not necessarily mean real world smart. I wish him well.

  10. bostontola says:

    What Iran is doing is wrong. Trying to coerce someone to do things against their conscience is abhorrent. If the US (or anyone else) does/did it, it would be equally abhorrent. Other countries/groups doing horrible things doesn’t absolve Iran. It’s just wrong.

  11. vmarko says:

    bostontola,

    “What Iran is doing is wrong. Trying to coerce someone to do things against their conscience is abhorrent.”

    How do you know that this is the reason why he was imprisoned? Usually people go to prison because they broke the law, commited a crime, etc. How do you know that this wasn’t the case? Were you in the courtroom during the trial? Or do you have a reference from the official written record of the trial that he was charged for disobedience due to his conscience? Can you point us to any official document that discusses why he was imprisoned at all?

    Or, when someone sends a public letter out of prison, you just trust their words “I’m innocent” at face value?

  12. Precious Fluids says:

    I get the subtext for what they were planning to do with physicists . All this Iran talk and the hostage playbook makes me feel like there may finally be a nuclear deal with sanctions lifted and a little less anxiety in the world. I have never understood the obsession with the uranium fuel cycle because a thorium reactor has many more advantages. In this case it allows the US to prevent Iran from developing a weapon too quickly, Iran can say they are still able to produce the bomb if they want to and they would not even need that many centrifuges. Besides centrifuge enrichment of uranium hexafluoride is for amateurs. Laser enrichment is way easier to do and much more efficient. Once this crisis passes the hostage/prisoner will be released, along with a large GDP boost for the Iranians. There would be zero nuclear proliferation risk if controlled nuclear fusion received the funding it deserves.

  13. bostontola says:

    Vmarko,
    I read the article. He was charged with communicating with an hostile Govt. The Iran Supreme Court nullified the verdict. Many rights groups have investigated and found this to be unfounded.

    So to sum up, there is lots of evidence that this is wrongdoing of the political arm of the Iranian Govt, and only an opaque charge by that same political part of the Govt against him.

    Your defense of his arrest is similar to religious defenses, ‘you can’t prove that X is false so it could be true’ even though no evidence for that truth is available, and lots of evidence of its falsehood is available.

  14. vmarko says:

    bostontola,

    “though no evidence for that truth is available, and lots of evidence of its falsehood is available”

    I am not defending Kokabee’s arrest, I am criticizing the article. The “available evidence” presented in the article is obviously incomplete and one-sided, because the evidence of the “other side” (i.e. the Iranian government) was not presented in any reliable or objective manner. Every serious article should help the reader gain a balanced opinion, and this article fails at that quite obviously.

    This situation raises the warning that the story of the article may be biased, full of prejudice and with elements of propaganda against the “evil Iran”. Readers of a blog that aims at objectivity and scientific reasoning (such as Sean’s blog) should know better than to fall for this type of stuff.

  15. “It’s a darn good thing we don’t imprison foreign nationals for indefinite time periods in inaccessible unaccountable circumstances for trumped up or no charges based on the most spurious of paranoid takes on what’s meant by ‘national security’”

    Guantanamo?

    Yes, there are some really bad folks there and yes, improving their circumstances is not high on my list of priorities. However, there are documented cases where perfectly innocent people were there for years, and the information proving their innocence (not that one should be required to do that) was there from the beginning. With U.S. soldiers paying bounty for captured Taliban, being at the wrong place at the wrong time, even if you are a right person, can get you in trouble.

    No, I’m not saying that the USA is as bad as Iran concerning human rights, but “we don’t do anything wrong” is not the right attitude.

  16. What is the reason why some comments have a yellow background?

  17. An Iranian Woman says:

    As a woman living in Iran, I would like to emphasis the difference between the Iranian fundamentalist regime and the people of Iran.
    Unfortunately, democracy has never been served to the Iranian people, neither by the Shah’s regime nor by the present government. However, after the 1979 revelation things got even worth, and we lost our personal freedom as well!
    During the last century, Iranian people fought to death for freedom and democracy, not to replace the Shah’s regime with the current dictatorship. Paul Kramarchyk mentioned the CIA & British intelligence service & Shah coup d’état in Iran. I am not sure if you heard that the most powerful Ayatollah of that time plays a very critical role in success of the coup against Mosaddegh. First his supporter, Ayatollah Kashani came out against Mosaddegh by mid-1953 and “told a foreign correspondent that Mosaddegh had fallen because he had forgotten that the shah enjoyed extensive popular support.” A month later, Kashani “went even further and declared that Mosaddegh deserved to be executed because he had committed the ultimate offense: rebelling against the shah, ‘betraying’ the country, and repeatedly violating the sacred law!!! And by means of his religious power and influence made Mosaddegh unpopular and alone.
    In fact, religious leaders, never wanted democracy and freedom in Iran, because they are both against Islam. An another example is Sheikh Fazlollah Noori (Ayatollah Khomaini called himself his follower ). On November 13, 1908, in a congregation of constitutionalism adversaries in Tehran, Sheikh Fazlollah Noori announced the Constitutional Revolution as being against divine (sharia) law. The reactionary mullahs and their agents prepared a petition denouncing the Parliament, calling it against religious law and sending the document to Mohammad Ali Shah. With their support, then Mohammad Ali Shah dissolved the parliament and declared the Constitution abolished and killed hundreds of people.
    Coming back to 1979 revelation. Ayatollah Khomeini banned the entry of women without hijab into government offices. Islamic hijab was fully enforced by 1984. Iran was the first country to demand all women observe hijab. Those who violate the law can punishments including up to 70 lashes, prison terms and fines. Stoning as a punishment for adultery is also added to the law at 1984. He also removed all the laws in which women and men considered equal and put the discriminated laws of Sharia instead. You may find some of the Islamic discrimination against women here: http://www.iranhrdc.org/english/publications/legal-commentary/1000000261-gender-inequality-and-discrimination-the-case-of-iranian-women.html
    During this 34 years, many Iranian men and women stand up against violation of human rights in Iran. However, they are either in prison or being killed…

    Iran is a beautiful country with really sweat weather and kind people. However, due to the present condition, we should choose between our freedom (& human dignity) and our home!

  18. Garcol says:

    This is not the place for political monologues or dialogues.
    A young man has been imprisoned for political reasons.
    Common humanity would be expected to call for supporting his release.

  19. stevenjohnson says:

    Wow, this sounds really terrible. It is so frustrating that Iran is not a friend whose government could be encouraged to do the right thing as a part of the friendship. As it is, things like this really can’t serve to do much more than whip up indignation at the evil people of Iran. This guy being put in jail is so much than this: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/us-pushing-israel-to-stop-assassinating-iranian-nuclear-scientists/

  20. Allen Wheeland says:

    Science needs freedom, freedom needs science, without freedom people cannot find their destiny.