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SPIE member Omid Kokabee honored with AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award

27 October 2014

Omid KokabeeOmid Kokabee, an Iranian graduate student in physics at the University of Texas at Austin who was imprisoned for refusing to contribute to weapons research in his home country, has been awarded the 2014 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Kokabee, a member of SPIE, is the first doctoral student to win the award. He was honored by AAAS "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."

In September, 18 Nobel laureates wrote an open letter to Ali Khamenei, supreme leader of Iran, calling for Kokabee's immediate and unconditional release. (That list had grown to 31 as of late October, when a letter was delivered to the United Nations delegation.) Saeed Khalili, Kokabee's lawyer, announced earlier this month that his request for retrial was granted by the Supreme Court.

"It is uncommon that scientists risk their freedom in defense of the principle of scientific freedom for all scientists, and yet this 32-year old physicist, at the beginning of a promising career, has done just that," the award's selection panel said.

From a young age, Kokabee demonstrated an aptitude for science. He ranked 29th on the Iranian college admission exam and earned a degree in applied physics and mechanics from Iran's Sharif University of Technology. Next, he completed a master's degree in photonics at the University of Catalonia in Barcelona. After studying at the Institute of Photonic Sciences, ICFO, Kokabee enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Texas at Austin in 2010 to study optics and photonics.

Kokabee's work caught the attention of authorities from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, who started asking for his assistance with military and intelligence projects as early as 2005. Kokabee repeatedly refused the offers, including a request for help developing a high-powered carbon dioxide laser used for isotope separation and a promise for a full scholarship for his doctoral program in exchange for his services.While visiting his family in Tehran in January 2011, Kokabee declined another request to help with research related to weapons development. He was arrested at the airport the next day and held in solitary confinement for more than a month. Denied legal representation, Kokabee was repeatedly questioned and pressured to "confess." The requests for his research assistance continued after his arrest, now with the offers of release from prison as well as threats that his family would be harmed if Kokabee did not cooperate.

After 15 months of pre-trial detention, Kokabee was convicted of conspiring with enemies of Iran and receiving "illegitimate" funds, in a televised trial in May 2012. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, a sentence that was upheld by the Tehran Court of Appeals, which added 91 days for receiving "illicit" scholarship funds while studying in Texas.

Kokabee has continued his studies from prison, where he has written papers and submitted abstracts to professional meetings. He has also prepared a detailed manuscript that he is attempting to publish in a refereed scientific journal. In September 2013, Kokabee was awarded the American Physical Society's 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."

Additionally, Kokabee transformed his prison ward into a center of learning. He taught a "physics for all" class where he explained the principles of physics with words rather than math. While building his own communication skills in English, Spanish, French, Turkish, and Chinese, Kokabee tutored other inmates in English, Spanish, and French. He also organized an English presentation series in which inmates spoke about topics including bacteriology, democratization, economics, and religion.

"Mr. Kokabee has used his time in jail to educate his fellow prisoners through courses in physics and languages," said Kate Kirby, American Physical Society executive officer, in support of Kokabee's nomination. "In this role, he has encouraged learning, disseminated scientific knowledge, and made education available to individuals who would not otherwise receive it."

However, the atmosphere of learning Kokabee strived to foster in the prison "has suddenly changed into a nightmare," wrote Hebert Berk, chair of the American Physical Society Committee on the International Freedom of Scientists, in a nomination letter for Kokabee. "In the spring, the prison guards allowed an attack by Iranian religious thugs who beat up many inmates in Omid's section, Ward 350, where political prisoners were held."

Kokabee was moved to a prison ward in a windowless basement where he shares four small toilets and showers with 100 prisoners. He is reportedly suffering from a number of ailments, including heart palpitations, shortness of breath, pain on the left side of his chest, dental problems that have led to tooth loss, kidney stones, and stomach pain yet he has not been allowed to receive medical treatment outside the prison.

"Honoring Mr. Kokabee as the recipient of the prestigious 2014 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award will send a message to his captors and to the world, and provide Mr. Kokabee with moral support during his perilous ordeal," the award selection panel said.

Established in 1980 and approved by the AAAS Board of Directors, the AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award honors scientists, engineers, or their organizations for exemplary actions that foster scientific freedom and responsibility. Previous award winners have been recognized for outstanding efforts to protect the public's health, safety, or welfare; to focus public attention on potential impacts of science and technology; to establish new precedents in carrying out social responsibilities; or to defend the professional freedom of scientists and engineers.

The AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award will be awarded during the 181st AAAS Annual Meeting in San Jose, Calif., 12-16 February 2015. A ceremony and reception will be held in Room 220C in the San Jose Convention Center on Friday, 13 February at 6:15 pm.

Iran: Jailed scientist denied urgent medical care: Omid Kokabee (Amnesty International)
Calls for Kokabee's release grow (Photonics for a Better World blog)