by Rose Cahalan
Five years ago, a UT student was imprisoned in Iran. He’s still there.
In a photo taken in the fall of 2010, Omid Kokabee stands on a bridge over Austin’s Lady Bird Lake, wearing a burnt-orange T-shirt with a Longhorn logo. Leaning against the railing with a slight smile, he looks like any of the thousands of tourists who come to watch the city’s famous bat colony emerge at dusk. Kokabee, then 28, had just started his first semester as a physics doctoral student at UT and was settling into life in Austin. Gregarious, with interests in cooking, travel, and learning new languages — he picked up Spanish quickly while earning a master’s degree at the University of Barcelona in 2008 — he made friends quickly within both the physics department, where he researched optics and lasers, and UT’s Iranian student community. In December, he flew home to visit his family in Iran for the holiday break.
The trip seemed to have gone well, but on Jan. 30, 2011, as he was attempting to board a flight back to the U.S., Kokabee was arrested at the Tehran airport. He has been behind bars ever since, sentenced to 10 years in prison on espionage charges that his family and friends, the international scientific community, and leading human rights organizations all believe are bogus. They say that far from being a spy for the U.S., Kokabee was punished for refusing to work for Iran’s nuclear program.
“What happened to Omid is a tragedy,” says UT physics professor Herbert Berk. A past chair of the American Physical Society’s Committee on International Freedom of Scientists, Berk has organized several protests and petitions since Kokabee’s arrest. He says that while each passing year brings less attention, raising awareness offers the best chance for Kokabee’s release. “If Iran feels enough pressure, eventually they might release him,” Berk says.
Elise Auerbach is the Iran country specialist with Amnesty International, which has been calling for Kokabee’s release since 2011. She says Kokabee’s story is especially concerning because he does not appear to have ever spoken out against the government. “Omid was quietly pursuing his PhD and was not involved politically at all,” she says. “This case has ramifications for the freedom of scientific inquiry around the world.”
Auerbach and Berk say that while it’s hard to know exactly why Kokabee was targeted, he may have been hand-picked for his intelligence. He scored 29th out of 400,000 students who took the national Iranian college entrance exam and was part of a select group of students invited to meet with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. And although his area of expertise within physics is not related to nuclear technology, he had a reputation as a promising scientist. In letters from prison released by his family, Kokabee has said that during his 2010–11 visit home for the holidays, someone approached him and invited him to work for the government. He believes that his refusal is what led to his arrest at the airport.
Stories like Kokabee’s are commonplace in Iran. According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, the country has at least 500 prisoners of conscience — a category that includes activists, dissidents, scholars, and anyone else who happened to get on the wrong side of the government. And while the 2013 election of moderate president Hassan Rouhani, the 2015 nuclear deal, and the 2016 release of three American citizens in a prisoner swap have given some reason for hope, it doesn’t appear that things are changing anytime soon.
Kokabee’s situation also illustrates the strange dichotomy of governance within Iran, where hard-line security agencies and more moderate forces often clash. In 2014, the Iranian supreme court ruled that there was no evidence he had ever committed a crime. But that ruling held no weight, and Kokabee was returned to prison. “It’s like the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing,” Auerbach says. “Within Iran, there are rational, forward-looking people who want to be integrated with the rest of the world, but the security agencies continue to have a stranglehold on society. The only thing that perpetuates their strength is constantly finding enemies.”
Kokabee, now 33, is in Section 350 of Tehran’s Evin Prison, nicknamed Evin University for its high population of scholars and intellectuals. During his time there, he has accepted two international awards, written poetry, translated a book on human rights from English to Farsi, and has taught informal English and science classes for other inmates. Conditions in the prison are notoriously poor, with former prisoners telling stories of prolonged solitary confinement, torture and beatings, and a lack of medical care. Auerbach says that since entering prison, Kokabee has suffered from a host of ailments, including heart problems, malnutrition, digestive issues, and poor dental health. From August 2015 to March 2016, he was sent to a hospital in Tehran, where his family was able to visit him under the constant watch of guards. In April, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. “The continued endangerment of Kokabee’s life is tantamount to torture,” Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, said in a statement.
While there has been a quiet but steady drumbeat of activism on Kokabee’s behalf over the years — from the Nobel laureates’ petition to more letters and petitions from the American Physical Society, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a chorus of other groups — many people close to the situation remain fearful. Seven UT students and faculty members declined interview requests for this story, with many citing concerns for their own safety and that of family in Iran. In a country where you can be sentenced to six months in prison and 91 lashes simply for posting a YouTube video of friends dancing to the pop song “Happy,” as happened to seven young Iranians in 2014, it’s understandable that people don’t want to talk. (The makers of the video were released after they apologized live on state television.)
Roja Najafi is a doctoral candidate in art history at UT. She didn’t know Kokabee personally, but has participated in rallies and protests on his behalf. Najafi has decided not to visit her family in Iran again unless the political situation changes — a choice that frees her to voice dissent. “I personally will not go back,” she says, “but for my friends who are going back and forth, there is risk. People have gotten in trouble for texting the wrong thing at the wrong time. The regime controls all types of communications, and surveillance is constant. So yes, people are afraid.”
Still, Najafi says increased attention could help Kokabee: “No one ever gets released when we keep quiet.”
Similar cases with happy endings do exist. Kamiar and Arash Alaei, brothers and physicians who earned international acclaim for their work against HIV/AIDS in Iran, were imprisoned in 2008 and 2009 for the same charge as Kokabee. They are believed to have been targeted for their involvement with the LGBT community and their promotion of needle-exchange programs for addicts. Released in 2010 and 2011, the brothers have since founded a health and human rights center at the University of Albany-SUNY.
A person close to Kokabee’s situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says that his friends and family feel abandoned by the American public, the media, and by the University of Texas. “Omid loves UT and Texas,” the source says. “But unfortunately UT did nothing for him. It was and still is very upsetting. There were other universities which Omid never attended, but they supported his case.”
The head of the University of Oslo in Norway and the directors of the Middle East Studies Association at the University of Arizona are among the many scholars who’ve written open letters to Iranian officials on Kokabee’s behalf since 2011. In a statement to media in October 2011, then-UT president Bill Powers said that the university was “deeply concerned for the fair and humane treatment of our graduate student Omid Kokabee.” Other than that, the university stayed quiet at the direction of then-UT System chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, who in July 2012 declined Powers’ request to waive a regents’ rule prohibiting universities from taking a stand on controversial matters.
After news of Kokabee’s kidney cancer made headlines in April — and after further requests from Berk, Kokabee’s former classmate Ellen Hutchison, BA ’15, and other campus activists — UT System chancellor William McRaven and UT president Greg Fenves called for his release in a letter to Gholamali Khoshroo, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations. “His already fragile health is reportedly deteriorating further,” the letter said. “On behalf of the faculty and students of The University of Texas at Austin, we respectfully request that your government release Mr. Kokabee on humanitarian and medical grounds, so that he may receive appropriate treatment and resume his studies at The University of Texas at Austin.”
Kokabee’s supporters praised the letter. “However late, it was still good not only for us, but specifically for Omid, since he really loves UT,” the source says. “He is almost left alone by the world outside.”
Photo (top): A portrait of Omid Kokabee (pictured left) was featured in an exhibition, along with 13 other Iranian prisoners, across from the United Nations in New York in February; Topher Edwards/Unlock Iran