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Iran Reschedules Espionage Trial for Texas Graduate Student

22 September 2011 3:38 pm
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Courtesy of the University of Texas, Austin

Omid Kokabee

A doctoral student at the University of Texas (UT), Austin, who has been detained for months in his native Iran on espionage charges will go on trial on 4 October, according to sources close to the student.

Omid Kokabee, who was working toward a Ph.D. in optics, was arrested at a Tehran airport while on vacation in Iran in late January or early February. He had been due to appear in court on 16 July on charges of "illegal earnings" and "communicating with a hostile government," but officials cancelled his trial at the last minute.

News of the new trial date comes as a number of scientific groups—including the American Physical Society (APS), the international optics society SPIE, the Optical Society of America, the International Commission for Optics, and the European Optical Society—have signed open letters to the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, requesting clemency for Kokabee. They join an online petition for Kokabee's release.

In its letter to Khamenei, APS suggested that the Iranian authorities had acted on a misunderstanding of Kokabee's expertise. "Mr. Kokabee has no training in nuclear physics, is not politically active, and is not associated with any political movement in Iran," the letter read. "Rather his primary concerns were his science studies in the field of optics. This area of physics has essentially no overlap with nuclear technology."

Kokabee, 29, graduated in applied physics and mechanics from the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran in 2005, and went on to receive a master's degree in optics from the University of Barcelona last year. He then began a Ph.D. at UT Austin, studying the interaction of lasers with plasmas.

Since his arrest, Kokabee has been detained at Evin prison in northwest Tehran. He is believed to be suspected of leaking Iranian scientific information and working with the CIA. Sources say he is physically and psychologically well, and is managing to pursue some studies.

One of Kokabee's friends in the United States, who asked to remain anonymous, thinks media attention was behind the original trial's cancellation. "Everybody was waiting to hear the verdict," he says. "This is generally [looking] good for Omid. They [the Iranian authorities] would much rather close the case without any media reflection."

Eugene Chudnovsky, a physicist at the City University of New York and a member of the international Committee of Concerned Scientists, agrees. "My theory is that in the light of broad public attention, the judge decided to play safe and have instructions from the office of the supreme leader [Khamenei] before imposing the sentence," he says. The committee has also sent an open letter to Khamenei requesting clemency for Kokabee.

But Chudnovsky adds that he was hoping public pressure would have secured Kokabee's release, and not just a delay of the trial. "The new date is not a good sign," he says. "It may indicate that the instruction from the office of the supreme leader to the judge was to work harder to prepare the case better by, for example, extracting a confession from Omid."

Among those keeping a close watch of Kokabee's case are other Iranian students studying in the United States. "Iranian students currently here are worried about returning to or even visiting Iran," says John Keto, the graduate advisor of UT Austin's physics department.

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