Fifteen years ago the supreme leader of Iran, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, met with 18-year-old Omid Kokabee, a high-school graduate of extraordinary talent who performed exceptionally well on the country's nationwide college entrance exams. Today, Kokabee is dying in an Iranian prison for his refusal to apply his talents to help Iran develop an atomic bomb.
I told the story of Omid Kokabee in two Washington Examiner op-eds published on April 23 and September 2 of last year. He was a physics doctoral student at the University of Texas in Austin when he was arrested in Tehran on a visit with his family during a winter break in 2011.
He was tortured and subsequently sentenced to 10 years in prison for "communicating with a hostile government (meaning the United States)" and "receiving illegitimate funds" (meaning his stipend at UT-Austin). Kokabee's open letters from prison, published by Nature magazine in 2013, revealed that the actual reason for his arrest was his refusal to work on laser enrichment of uranium pursued by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. "My only sin is that I am following a rare field of study and no one in Iran has my expertise", wrote Kokabee in one of his letters. After his arrest he was repeatedly offered immediate release from prison in exchange for his cooperation.
I am sorry to report a sad development in Kokabee's case. In response to a life-threatening condition he was transferred to a hospital and diagnosed with kidney cancer. It was not entirely unexpected. Evin Prison, where he spent the last five years of his life, is notorious for kidney problems among prisoners due to poor quality of water and overcrowded cells with limited access to toilets. Kokabee began complaining about kidney stones three years ago but was refused medical care. Before his arrest he was a healthy 28 year-old, excited about his research and full of great aspirations. Today he is a wreck, suffering from kidney, stomach and heart problems. Last week he underwent radical nephrectomy (total removal) of his right kidney. He remains a prisoner in the intensive care unit of Sina hospital in Tehran, under constant observation by armed guards.
In 2013 the American Physical Society awarded Andrei Sakharov Prize to Omid Kokabee "for his courage in refusing to use his physics knowledge to work on projects that he deemed harmful to humanity, in the face of extreme physical and psychological pressure." In 2014 the American Association for Advancement in Science followed suit by giving Kokabee its Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award. Amnesty International declared Kokabee Prisoner of Conscience. Thirty-three physics Nobel laureates appealed to the Iran's Supreme Leader on Kokabee's behalf.
Last spring, Javad Larijjani, the head of the Iranian Judiciary's Human Rights Council, promised on Iran's TV Channel 2 that Kokabee would be released. The Head of the AEOI, Ali Akbar Salehi, who was the key negotiator of the 2015 nuclear deal and a foreign minister of Iran until 2013, met with the family and lawyer of Omid Kokabee and offered his help. Neither Larijani nor Salehi delivered on their promises despite reportedly having the ear of Iran's supreme leader. Kokabee's name was absent from the list of 900+ prisoners pardoned by Ayatollah Khamenei in July 2015 two days after Iran signed the nuclear deal with the United States.
In January of this year, on the fifth anniversary of his imprisonment, Omid witnessed the release of Amir Hekmati and Saeed Abedini, two Americans that he befriended in Evin Prison. However, his own fate remains sealed despite his fight with cancer and the 2015 ruling of Iran's Supreme Court that he committed no crime. The final word on who lives and who dies in Iran belongs to the Revolutionary Courts that execute the will of the supreme leader.
Eugene M. Chudnovsky is a distinguished professor of physics at the City University of New York and co-chair of the Committee of Concerned Scientists. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.