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Nobel laureates call for release of Iranian physicist

Posted on behalf of Michele Catanzaro.

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Omid Kokabee (pictured at left) was among 13 Iranian prisoners featured in an exhibition across from the United Nations in New York in February.

Unlock Iran

[Update 14 October: An Iranian court has granted Kokabee a retrial, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.]

Eighteen Physics Nobel laureates have signed an open letter addressed to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, calling for the release of Omid Kokabee, a 32-year-old physicist who has spent the last 3 years and 8 months in a Teheran prison.

The letter is a joint initiative by Amnesty International; the Committee of Concerned Scientists (CCS), an international human-rights organization headquartered in New York; and the Committee on the International Freedom of Scientists of the American Physical Society (APS), based in College Park, Maryland.

In January 2011 Kokabee, who at the time was a PhD student at the University of Texas in Austin, was arrested during a visit to his native Iran. He was later sentenced to 10 years of jail on charges of ‘communicating with a hostile government’.

Kokabee denied all charges in an April 2013 open letter, in which he claimed that his jailing was an attempt to pressure him into collaborating with a military research project (see ‘Iranian says he was jailed for refusing to engage in military research‘). Kokabee’s research included work on a type of laser that could be used in nuclear enrichment.

The Nobel laureates’ letter describes the accusations as “spurious charges related to [Kokabee’s] legitimate scholarly ties with academic institutions outside of Iran”. It also urges Khamenei “to exhibit compassion and allow him to return to his studies”.

Eugene Chudnovsky, the co-chair of the Committee of Concerned Scientists, says that the letter’s release has been timed to coincide with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s visit at the United Nations (UN) in New York, where on 25 September he addressed the UN General Assembly.

Earlier this month, the CCS has said that Kokabee’s health conditions have worsened, and that he was allegedly being denied medical care.

Kokabee has received sustained support from the international scientific community since Nature first covered his case in the West. In 2013, he was awarded the APS Andrei Sakharov Prize, which recognizes scientists who promote human rights. Amnesty International declared him to be a prisoner of conscience last year.

In March Kokabee submitted a paper to the physics preprint archive, signed from Teheran’s Evin jail. He has also submitted several contributions to local and international optics conferences, among them the 2014 Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics (CLEO), which took place in June in California. Although some of these papers were accepted, he was allegedly denied permission to leave the jail temporarily to attend any of those conferences.

The Nobel laureates who signed the open letter are Alexei Abrikosov, Nicolaas Bloembergen, Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, Leon Cooper, Andre Geim, Sheldon Glashow, John Hall, Anthony Hewish, Wolfgang Ketterle, Klaus von Klitzing, Toshihide Maskawa, John Mather, Konstantin Novoselov, Arno Penzias, David Politzer, Jack Steinberger, Daniel Tsui and James Cronin.

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