Omid Kokabee, a University of Texas graduate student currently imprisoned in Iran, has been awarded the American Physical Society's Andrei Sakharov Prize, which recognizes outstanding leadership and achievements of scientists in upholding human rights.
The APS selected Kokabee as one of two 2014 Andrei Sakharov Prize winners. He was cited 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."
Kokabee was arrested in Iran as he was preparing to return to the United States after visiting family. He is currently serving a ten year sentence after Iranian authorities deemed his graduate studies as "communicating with a hostile government" and his academic support to be "illegal earnings."
In a public letter dated March 2013, Kokabee states that he was being persecuted for refusing to work on Iranian military projects including the development of laser-based uranium enrichment technology that could be used to produce material for nuclear weapons. Kokabee reported that he has been offered freedom from prison several times in exchange for his cooperation, but has refused.
"With this recognition of Kokabee," said Hossein Sadeghpour, chair of the APS Committee on International Freedom of Scientists, "the APS has not only reaffirmed the spirit of Andrei Sakharov's work, but has shed new and important light on the plight of a budding scientist who cannot speak for himself."
This summer, a discussion in Barcelona focused on the plight of scientists denied academic research freedom through imprisonment or other constraints. The event included overviews of cases including Kokabee's.
The case has been the subject of two letters to Iran's rulers urging reconsideration signed by multiple optics and photonics societies and international organizations as well as support from international groups such as Amnesty International. These efforts uphold the right to pursue research that aligns with one's ethics, and contend that Kokabee's trial and conviction violated international standards for justice.
Along with Kokabee, the APS is also presenting the 2014 Sakharov prize to Boris Altshuler of the Lebedev Physical Institute, Moscow for "his life-long struggle for democracy in Russia and for his advocacy on behalf of the rights of neglected children."