Iranians in Outer Space–and Their Scientists in Prison?

Omid Kokabee

Omid Kokabee

Lately, we have been hearing a lot about the extraterrestrial experiences of Iranians, both actual and desired. Iranian-American NASA engineer (and heart throb) Bobak Ferdowsi, who gained fame for his distinctive hairdo as well as his skill in guiding the Mars Rover landing, was the First Lady’s guest at President Obama’s State of the Union address, thanks to his efforts to inspire kids to pursue their education in the STEM fields.

Meanwhile, Iran successfully sent a monkey into space and back, prompting president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to declare that he would like to become the nation’s very first astronaut. While the prospect of Iran’s controversial president being launched into orbit in a space ship intrigued many both inside Iran and out, Iran’s ability to advance the frontiers of science is being undermined by its government’s practice of putting some of its brightest scientists in prison.

Iranians take justifiable pride in their space program and other scientific endeavors and Iran has invested significant resources into the development of a large number of distinguished scientists. At the same time, Iranian authorities maintain that when these scientists go abroad to hold fellowships at foreign universities or attend scientific conferences, they are recruited by the CIA, the Israeli Mossad and other enemies to betray their country by joining a pervasive plot to undermine the Islamic Republic. This shady plot is known as the Enghelab-e Makhmali, or the “velvet revolution.”

Just as the country desperately needs its highly trained scientists to benefit society, Iran’s security apparatus seems to desperately need to perpetuate the notion of this ongoing insidious conspiracy in order to justify their existence and their grip on the reins of power. In order to accomplish this purpose, the authorities seem willing to sacrifice many of Iran’s most distinguished citizens, whether they be scientists, film makers, scholars or artists. Many have been imprisoned while others join the growing brain drain of Iranians seeking relief through self-exile.

One example of Iran’s persecution of its best and brightest is that of Omid Kokabee, a young physicist specializing in optics and photonics. He had been pursuing doctoral studies at the University of Texas, Austin when he went to Iran to visit his family. He was arrested in February 2011 and in May 2012, after an unfair trial in a Revolutionary Court at which reportedly no evidence was presented against him, he was sentenced to ten years in prison for allegedly conspiring with enemies of Iran and receiving “illegitimate funds.”

While in detention he was held in solitary confinement, subjected to prolonged interrogations, and pressured to make a confession. His interrogators reportedly threatened that he would be tortured and that professors at Iranian universities with whom he had worked would be arrested. During questioning, he was reportedly made to write down details of individuals he had seen in embassies or at conferences, and was told by those questioning him that some of the people he had met were CIA operatives.

The presiding judge at his trial, Abolghasem Salavati, is notorious for the harsh sentences he imposes on those charged with dubious crimes against “national security.” Amnesty International has repeatedly condemned proceedings held in Iran’s Revolutionary Courts as inherently unfair, where defendants are not allowed to review any evidence against them, much less contest the charges, and where confessions obtained under torture or other forms of duress are admitted as evidence.

Omid Kokabee’s friends and colleagues at the University of Texas created a video in which they testify to their admiration for his character and his dedication to science, and plead for his release. A petition on his behalf has been created and organizations ranging from the  Committee of Concerned Scientists, American Physical Society, Scholars at Risk, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, have called for his release.

Iran cannot afford to lose its scientists for the sake of promoting this giant conspiracy theory. As it is, several of its scientists have been assassinated in mysterious attacks. The Iranian government maintains that the same dark forces who lure their scientists to conspire against the government also recruit Iranian traitors to murder scientists; one Iranian has been executed and several others face death sentences after “confessing” on Iranian TV to participation in these assassination plots.

Iran hopes to achieve international recognition for its scientific advances. An essential means of furthering this goal would be to institute fundamental reforms to its legal system to ensure fair and impartial trials including the implementation of strict rules of admissible evidence, rejection of the use of coerced confessions, and the elimination of all the vaguely worded and nebulous national security related offenses. This way Iran’s scientists will acquire the confidence they need so that they do not have to fear being subjected to capricious charges when they engage in crucial exchange of ideas with international colleagues, and so they will not have to choose between risking prison if they remain in Iran or leaving their homeland. Then Iran’s talented and dedicated scientists will be able to concentrate on the goal of advancing science for the benefit of their country and its people, and if that happens, the stars won’t even be the limit!

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8 thoughts on “Iranians in Outer Space–and Their Scientists in Prison?

  1. Mrs Elise Auerbach, please stay away from the countries like Iran. Experience has showed that all NGO's established in the western countries implementing their governments goals and they're the source of instabilities in those countries.

    • Dear Ardavan: Amnesty International is not a western NGO. Amnesty is an international movement that campaigns against human rights abuses whereever they occur. Amnesty does not further the goal of any government, whether western or not western. Amnesty international vigorously condemns human rights violations in the United States and other western nations. Iranian human rights defenders themselves have welcomed the support they have received from civil society activists around the world.

  2. Please note a correction: the American Academy for the Advancement of Science has not officially called for Omid Kokabee's release. On 7 December, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Amnesty International hosted an event in Washington DC at which scientists could sign an open letter backing Kokabee."

  3. Elise, the letters of Omid Kokabee from prison leaked (there are at least some of them at ) and in them Omid says that the iranian authorities are trying to force him to collaborate in secret activities of the iranian government. A clue of these activities is given by the first phrase of the second letter translated to english: "My only fault is that my studies are unique and there is nobody in Iran with these studies and this expertise. Unfortunately, it seems that this specialization is extremely required."

    In an article (in spanish, linked in ) Dr. Arash Alaei (prison mate of Omid Kokabee during months) tells that in Iran inprisonments and punishments are a frequent way to "correct" talented people that don't want to work in government programs, and that this is the case of Omid Kokabee.

    It is unacceptable that scientists or any people are forced to work or be involved in anything that they don't want, especially matters that are controversial, potentially dangerous, or even could provoke a war with unpredictable consequences, as could be the case of Iran programs, as we all know.

    The present situation of Omid Kokabee is alarming, as not only iranian authorities deny him the needed medical care for his recently diagnosed kidney stones, but also I found this twit of activist @Sonja_Jo :

    "After 2 years in prison the pressure on physics student Omid Kokabee to co-operate intensifies #Iran #FreeOmid"

    So you should communicate all these facts and circumstances to authorities and especially to media, TV channels, radios, press, internet media, and so on, because this case is a BIG INTERNATIONAL SCANDAL, and this scandal will also be useful to obtain the release of Omid Kokabee.

    I hope you reply to this comment.
    Thank you very much.

  4. Hundreds of researchers, professors, and students in Iran and in the West know Omid Kokabee as a talented young researcher. Not a single fact confirming his alleged ties to forces acting against Iran’s interests has been presented at his trial. Long prison sentence to Omid Kokabee is a gross violation of human rights and a dirty spot on Iran’s reputation in science and technology.

  5. Dear Elise, My friends and me at Amnesty Spain are very happy to see Omid finally declared as a prisoner of conscience by ai, a first, albeit small, step towards his release. Hopefully.
    However, I still consider your blogpost as the pathbreaking and outstanding text, as it was the only monographic text on Omid by ai during a long time. Thank you.
    Warm greetings from Spain. Reinhard