PUBLIC RELEASE DATE:
Contact: Kat Zambon firstname.lastname@example.org 202-326-6434 American Association for the Advancement of Science @AAAS_News
Omid Kokabee, an Iranian graduate student in physics at the University of Texas at Austin who was imprisoned for refusing to contribute to weapons research in his home country, has been awarded the 2014 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Kokabee, the first doctoral student to win the award, was honored by AAAS “for his courageous stand and willingness to endure imprisonment rather than violate his moral stance that his scientific expertise not be used for destructive purposes and for his efforts to provide hope and education to fellow prisoners.”
“It is uncommon that scientists risk their freedom in defense of the principle of scientific freedom for all scientists, and yet this 32-year old physicist, at the beginning of a promising career, has done just that,” the award’s selection panel said.
From a young age, Kokabee demonstrated an aptitude for science. He ranked 29th on the Iranian college admission exam and earned a degree in applied physics and mechanics from Iran’s Sharif University of Technology. Next, he completed a master’s degree in photonics at the University of Catalonia in Barcelona. After studying at the Institute of Photonic Sciences, ICFO, Kokabee enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Texas at Austin in 2010 to study optics and photonics.
Kokabee’s work caught the attention of authorities from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, who started asking for his assistance with military and intelligence projects as early as 2005. Kokabee repeatedly refused the offers, including a request for help developing a high-powered carbon dioxide laser used for isotope separation and a promise for a full scholarship for his doctoral program in exchange for his services.
While visiting his family in Tehran in January 2011, Kokabee declined another request to help with research related to weapons development. He was arrested at the airport the next day and held in solitary confinement for more than a month. Denied legal representation, Kokabee was repeatedly questioned and pressured to “confess.” The requests for his research assistance continued after his arrest, now with the offers of release from prison as well as threats that his family would be harmed if Kokabee did not cooperate.
After 15 months of pre-trial detention, Kokabee was convicted of conspiring with enemies of Iran and receiving “illegitimate” funds, in a televised trial in May 2012. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, a sentence that was upheld by the Tehran Court of Appeals, which added 91 days for receiving “illicit” scholarship funds while studying in Texas.