Omid Kokabee Accepts Award From Behind Bars


In a letter from his prison cell in Iran, former UT graduate student Omid Kokabee has accepted a Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAS).

Kokabee was a doctoral student researching optics in UT’s physics department when the Iranian government took him into custody during a January 2011 trip home to visit his family in Tehran. He pled not guilty to charges of communicating with a hostile government and was sentenced to 10 years in Tehran’s Evin Prison—sometimes called “Evin University” for its population of political prisoners, journalists, and dissidents.

Kokabee, his family, and others advocating for his release say that the conviction was a result of Kokabee’s refusal to aid Iran in developing nuclear technology. In a letter published by Nature last year, he describes turning down repeated requests to cooperate with Iranian scientists: “I had not even been tried yet when [I was offered the chance] to spend my ‘term in prison’ in a lab instead of the Evin Prison.” In October, Kokabee was granted a retrial, and his sentence was upheld.

According to UT physics professor Herbert Berk, who chairs an American Physical Society committee on the international freedom of scientists, Kokabee’s health has suffered in prison. “He’s lost a lot of weight, he’s had frequent kidney stone issues that haven’t been treated, and he’s lost some teeth, as well as other issues,” Berk says. “Despite this, he’s taught other prisoners physics and languages, and he recently translated a book on human rights into Farsi.”

The physics community has rallied around Kokabee, including 28 Nobel laureates who signed a petition asking for his release (a number that Berk says has since risen to 33).

Ultimately my message to scientists, especially those of my generation, is that science and scientists are too important and powerful to be at the service of inhumane activities or to the consolidation of dictatorships.

At an AAS award ceremony on Feb. 13, Berk read the following letter from Kokabee:

It is a great and precious honor to be awarded the 2014 Freedom and Responsibility Award by the American Association for Advancement of Sciences.

I love my country. Our Iran is a land with an ancient civilization and a highly developed culture. I would never take any step to harm my people. I was only a scientific researcher. I was not involved in any political activities or held any political views. But they threatened to send me to prison for 10 years if I refused to cooperate in nuclear projects with certain organizations. Because of our moral and academic principles we suffer the hardships of prison, because we refuse to have our work lead to enhancing suffering in the world.

Here I would like to point out two things. The first is that scientists are responsible for their works’ impact on society and the future of humanity, just like 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, such as weapons of mass destruction, the destruction of the environment or the misuse of science for ideological, false or deceptive purposes by governments or companies. This is something I have tried to play a small part in and I hope my academic colleagues all over the world will closely listen to me and commit to similar courses of action.

The second thing I would like to point out is something I have learned in these past four years from living among political prisoners and prisoners of conscience and that is the need to support scientists, engineers, and technicians who based on moral and humanitarian principles expose violations by governments and institutions. They expose them to inform the public of state and institutional wrongdoings and to encourage an appropriate response that would stop or correct the violations. These whistleblowers often pay a heavy price as they can face the wrath of the wrongdoers. Therefore they need our support.

In this light I suggest that scientific and human rights groups strengthen and expand their activities. They should establish a joint international organization that would create the largest network of scientists from around the world to train courageous, responsible and humanitarian scientists armed with moral principles. This group would make the public aware of the dangers of misusing scientific and technological advances. In addition, this organization would rise to the defense of scientists who face danger because they are upholding their humanitarian principles.

Ultimately my message to scientists, especially those of my generation, is that science and scientists are too important and powerful to be at the service of inhumane activities or to the consolidation of dictatorships. As scientists are the core of empowering humanity, it is the scientists who must courageously carry out their humanitarian responsibilities.


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