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29 October 2014

Scientific freedom award the latest honor for Omid Kokabee; calls for his release growing

We're sure he would have preferred a different path, but the contributions of Omid Kokabee to awareness of scientific responsibility are unmistakable. Last fall, he was named a recipient of the Andrei Sakharov Prize from the American Physical Society, and now the American Association for the Advancement of Science has announced Omid as the winner of the AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award for 2015.

Kokabee, a laser physicist and a member of SPIE, was imprisoned in his native Iran as he attempted to return to his PhD studies at the University of Texas at Austin after a visit to his family in Tehran, in February 2011. He was accused of conspiring with enemies of Iran, and convicted in a trial in May 2012. He was not allowed to meet with his lawyer.

Omid has continued his studies from prison, where he has written papers and submitted abstracts to professional meetings. Of course, he was not allowed to attend to present them. He's also been teaching -- English and physics -- to fellow prisoners. This selfless activity earned him some further unpleasant attention, according to Hebert Berk, chair of the American Physical Society Committee on the International Freedom of Scientists, in a nomination letter for Kokabee. "In the spring, the prison guards allowed an attack by Iranian religious thugs who beat up many inmates in Omid's section, Ward 350, where political prisoners were held."

SPIE has supported the efforts on Kokabee's behalf, and was a signer of a letter from three optics organizations to Iran's supreme leader calling for his release.

Omid maintains, and his awards have reinforced, that he is being punished for refusing to use his laser expertise for the benefit of Iran's nuclear program. Meanwhile, awareness of his case continues to grow, and Iranian missions to the United Nations have repeatedly been presented with letters and petitions for his release. In September, 31 Nobel Prize winners were among the signers of the latest batch.

He recently sent a letter to Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani of Stanford University, winner of the Fields Medal and the first woman ever so honored. He said her win was the "happiest news I have heard in prison over the recent years."

The photo of Omid was taken during SPIE Photonics West a few years ago. It is our fervent hope that through international attention to his case -- and your activism (click here for more information on where to send letters), we'll have another opportunity soon to see him in San Francisco. Our photonics world would be a better place if the only award Omid had received lately was his PhD from the University of Texas. But by keeping his situation in the public eye, his prospects for release are much improved. When Kokabee's new trial was announced, Elise Auerbach, the Iran country specialist for Amnesty International commented that the Iranian government "would never have [made] this decision in the absence of a lot of pressure."

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