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Retrial granted for jailed Iranian physicist

16 Oct 2014
Land of the free: Kokabee's portrait on exhibition in New York

Omid Kokabee, an Iranian physicist who has been in jail in Teheran for almost four years, has been granted a retrial by the Iranian Supreme Court of Justice. The decision follows an open letter signed in September by 18 Nobel-prize-winning physicists that called for Kokabee’s to be set free. Since then, the number of laureates who have endorsed the letter calling for his freedom has reached 28. The laureates’ demand came after a separate request for a retrial had been filed by Kokabee’s lawyer, Saeed Khalili, earlier this year. “The Supreme Court has confirmed that there are major faults in [the first] verdict, and has overturned it,” Khalili told Physics World, adding that another court will now have to consider the case anew.

The letter’s release was timed to coincide with a visit by the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to the United Nations, when he addressed its general assembly on 25 September. The letter – a joint initiative of Amnesty International, the Committee of Concerned Scientists (CCS) and the American Physical Society (APS) – deemed the charges levied against Kokabee as “spurious” and asked Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei to “allow him to return to his studies”.

“Extremely cautious”

“This letter is an opportunity to help him get better treatment,” says John Mather, one of the Nobel laureates who signed it. “[Kokabee] does not deserve to be in jail. I expect Iranian students [studying abroad] would be extremely cautious abouting visiting home. I personally would be afraid to go.”

Kokabee, who was born in Iran in 1982, began a PhD at the Institute of Photonic Sciences in Spain in 2007, before continuing his studies at the University of Texas at Austin in 2010. He was arrested in January 2011 in Iran and in May 2012 was given a 10-year jail sentence for “communicating with a hostile government”.

Worsening conditions

In an open letter that he penned from jail in April 2013, Kokabee denied all charges and claimed that he had been jailed to pressure him to participate in a military nuclear project. Kokabee worked on high-power lasers, which can be used in nuclear enrichment. The CCS claims that his health and jailing conditions have worsened since he entered prison and that Kokabee has been denied medical care.

Despite his incarceration, Kokabee still appears to be keeping up with his work – he posted a paper on the arXiv preprint server this year, penned from his Evin jail. He also sent another open letter thanking the Nobel laureates for their support. Last September, Kokabee was awarded the APS’s 2014 Andrei Sakharov Prize, which recognizes scientists who promote human rights. 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”.

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