Posted on behalf of Michele Catanzaro.
Omid Kokabee, a physics PhD student jailed in Iran since January 2011, was awarded yesterday the 2014 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.”
Kokabee has said that he had been pressured to cooperate in Iranian military projects that he thought were likely part of a covert nuclear programme. It is the first time a person is awarded the prize while in prison.
The Sakharov Prize recognizes scientists committed to human rights and is named after the Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov, (1921-1989), who worked on the Soviet hydrogen bomb and later became a dissident. Sakharov received the Peace Nobel prize in 1975.
Along with Kokabee, the American Physical Society (APS) has also presented the 2014 Sakharov prize to Boris Altshuler of the Lebedev Physical Institute, for “his life-long struggle for democracy in Russia and for his advocacy on behalf of the rights of neglected children.”.
Kokabee, 31, did graduate studies in laser physics at the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) in Barcelona and at the University of Texas in Austin. He was sentenced to 10 years of prison in May 2010 for conspiring against Iran. He denied all accusations in a series of open letters, in which he also denounced ill-treatment in jail. In one letter, published in March, he wrote that the he was jailed for refusing to work on projects that were possibly related to the use of high-powered carbon dioxide laser for isotope separation.
“Kokabee is becoming an icon for science free of pressure from political influence: this independence is much in the spirit of Sakharov,” says Hossein Sadeghpour, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the chair of the APS Committee on the International Freedom of Scientists, which nominated the PhD student for the prize. He says that the nomination was supported by letters from prominent physicists, including a Nobel Prize laureate.
“I am happy that the prize is awarded to a person in the Middle East, because the situation of the region is very similar today to Stalin’s Russia,” says Eugene Chudnovsky, a physicist at the City University of New York and a member of the award committee who was himself a victim of repression in the Soviet Union. “Plenty of people are jailed or killed in a fight against freedom of thought.” He adds that the awardee has been selected “in part because Nature […] brought international attention to Omid”.
Now, scientists hope that the prize will improve Kokabee’s situation. The country has a new president, Hassan Rouhani, who is seen as more moderate than his predecessor. “Omid Kokabee’s case presents a good opportunity for Rouhani to show he wants to improve Iran’s human-rights standards”, says Chudnovsky.
In August, an Iranian opposition magazine published a letter in which Kokabee complained for having been refused a temporary prison leave to present results at a physics conference held in late August in Iran. His submission, made from jail, was accepted by the conference organizers, and he was assigned a time slot. Prison authorities argued that they could not afford the security and transport costs, the letter says.