UT Administration Remains Silent as Student Lingers in Foreign Prison

David Maly

As a former UT doctoral student remains jailed in Iran, UT administrators continue to refuse to take an official stance on his imprisonment.

Omid Kokabee, a former UT physics doctoral student who was arrested in Iran while visiting family in February of 2011, lost his final appeal in Iranian court last month. He had been brought up on charges of conspiring with foreign countries in plots against the Iranian government and sentenced to 10 years in prison. In a statement released Tuesday, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said his decision not to release an official statement in Kokabee’s defense still stands, but he does urge community members to pursue support for Kokabee elsewhere.

Kokabee has continually denied all charges against him

Herbert Berk, UT physics professor and member of the Committee on International Freedom of Scientists of the American Physical Society, said now that Kokabee has lost his final appeal, the most plausible way to bring about justice for him would be a mass showing of support to put pressure on the Iranian government to treat him fairly.

“It just has to come from international pressure,” Berk said.

Berk began an online petition in June urging the Iranian government to review Kokabee’s case fairly, a measure he hoped would lead to his release. The petition has 323 signatures so far.

Berk said it is still unclear why the Iranian government has targeted Kokabee

Widespread belief that Kokabee was wrongly accused of those charges and faced an unfair trial has led to an international campaign to bring him justice.

Advocates for Kokabee’s freedom include several highly-respected academic entities, including University of Oslo, American Society for Photobiology and the Committee on International Freedom of Scientists of the American Physical Society.

Berk’s petition cites some of the factors he believes led to an unfair trial for Kokabee

“We find it very difficult to believe the charges he has been convicted of, charges which he has denied under intense pressure. His conviction occurred after a rapid hearing that convicted more than 10 individuals, with little time to present a cogent defense,” the petition read.

In response to Kokabee’s plight, UT President William Powers, Jr. attempted to gain permission to release a statement advocating for Kokabee this past summer but was prohibited by the UT System Board of Regents. Cigarroa cited a rule that only the board president or UT System chancellor may comment on “matters of a political or obviously controversial nature, which represent an official position of the UT System or any institution or department thereof.”

Cigarroa then said he did not feel it appropriate for the UT System to take a position in Kokabee’s defense

“We have great sympathy for the plight of Omid Kokabee,” Cigarroa said in July. “As I mentioned in a July 3 letter to President Powers, we are personally sympathetic, but believe it is not a matter upon which it is appropriate for the UT System to take an official position. I also suggested reaching out to human rights organizations, including the National Academies’ Committee on Human Rights in an effort to seek assistance in promoting the petition led by physics professor Herbert Berk to release Mr. Kokabee.”

Berk said he feels the University is capable of releasing such a statement, and he sees their refusal as a major roadblock for Kokabee.

“There is a limit to what [the Committee on International Freedom] can do, and we have done a lot. But it would be good to get the support of the major institutions in our country, and UT is one of them,” Berk said. “Not getting the support in this particular case is very disappointing. It hurts our attempts.”

Berk said there have been multiple cases of academics being unjustly jailed in Iran who were subsequently released as a result of public pressure

Dr. Arash Alaei is one of those cases.

Alaei, an HIV and AIDS researcher, was imprisoned by the Iranian government from 2008 to 2011, during which time he was jailed with Kokabee for several months. Alaei was accused of conspiring to overthrow the Iranian government and sentenced to a six-year prison term. With international support from academic Alaei said that kind of support is what Kokabee desperately needs at this time.

“I think the best approach would be to involve the media and campaign for him,” Alaei said.

Alaei said the Iranian government has jailed several people without any reason in recent years, and it is commonplace in Iran for prisoners to be denied basic legal rights such as adequate access to their attorney.

In Alaei’s case, support for him in the U.S. included the dean of Harvard University’s School of Public Health, the State University of New York-Albany School of Public Health and the Ohio State University’s School of Public Health. Ohio State University is one of UT’s 11 peer institutions.