Demonstrators rally to raise awareness for imprisoned student Omid Kokabee

Josh Willis

A group of demonstrators gathered Wednesday on the RLM bridge to raise awareness for Omid Kokabee, a former UT physics graduate student who has been imprisoned in Iran for almost four years.

The group gathered in the shade of the building Kokabee would have returned to for class after visiting his family in Iran. Physics professor Herbert Berk spoke at the demonstration about the circumstances of Kokabee’s incarceration.

“It’s hard to understand what it was, and there was no trial to really shed any light because, at the trial, the judge looked at him and declared him guilty and put him in jail for 10 years,” Berk said.

Berk serves as chairman for the Committee on International Freedom of Scientists, an organization that fights for imprisoned scientists. He said the reasons for Kokabee’s imprisonment are unusual.

“He was declared innocent of some of the [original] charges, but then they convicted him of conspiring with the United States government and getting illegal income, which is, as far as we can tell, the income from being a TA here,” Berk said.

Berk said Kokabee has lost weight and has come down with different medical afflictions while in the Iranian prison system.

“Omid is under some very bad conditions, and, in fact, he’s been ill for a while,” Berk said. “He has several different things, like heart palpitations, and he has trouble with kidney stones that periodically come, in part, because of the poor water that’s there.”

Throughout the world, Nobel laureates have written petitions asking that Kokabee be set free. Berk said petitions collected by Amnesty International will be delivered to the Iranian representative at the United Nations assembly in a couple of weeks.

Ellen Hutchison, a former UT student and acquaintance of Kokabee, said that the demonstration is a powerful way to spread the message and encourage others to speak out.

“Public awareness really does help the situation of political prisoners. Anything [the public] can do to increase awareness would be helpful,” Hutchison said. “This makes a statement not only about Omid, but about the freedom of scientists to study what they believe is beneficial to society.”

At the demonstration, white doves were released from the bridge that had been trained to fly out and return to their home. Rebecca Bratton, the business owner that provided the doves, said that the doves represent what everyone hopes for Kokabee.

“White doves represent peace, hope, love and faith, which is very fitting this occasion because it’s what it’s going to take to get Omid back where he needs to be,”
Bratton said. “Once the birds are set free, they return to their home, which is what we want for Omid.”