This is a blog dedicated to a personal interpretation of political news of the day. I attempt to be as knowledgeable as possible before commenting and committing my thoughts to a day's communication.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Prisoner of Conscience

"Is it a sin that I don't want, under any circumstances, to get involved in security and military activities?"
"[I experienced] shock [at being imprisoned] without any legal justification. Scientists are responsible for their work and its impact on society and the future of humanity, just as a mother protects her child and feels responsible in raising her properly."
"Scientists have a responsibility to refuse co-operation in any project which is harmful to society."
Omid Kokabee, Iranian scientist in engineering physics
Omid Kokabee
Photo: Free Omid

He is talented to a degree that his academic research came to the notice of Iran's Republican Guard Corps elite. It is they to whom the ayatollahs have given responsibility for the country's nuclear program. And because Omid Kokabee who received his doctoral and post-doctoral training in the West, distinguishing himself as a young scientist, refused repeated invitations to pursue research at Iranian laboratories, he was arrested and imprisoned.

He has languished for the past five years in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison. His true crime is his refusal to use his knowledge to advance Iran's nuclear file, which he considers to be potentially harmful to humanity. The charge levelled against him is that he has collaborated with an enemy of Iran. He was sentenced to a ten-year prison term, by the Revolutionary Court. Consensus over his guilt is not universal in Iran. The country's Supreme Court ruled last fall that charges brought against him were flawed, vacating his conviction.

But the Revolutionary Court simply ignored that ruling, leaving the young scientist in prison. In the last year he was moved from incarceration among other political prisoners to be held in a tightly packed cell shared with twenty inmates convicted of other crimes. No reading or writing material is permitted for him, and nor is he allowed to have a reading lamp. Under poor living conditions, his health has suffered.

He had worked as an engineering physics student in the field of laser technology. His bachelor's degree in Iran led to industrial laboratory experience and from there acceptance to the physics graduate program at the University of Texas. Visa issues halted that planned move, leaving him to enrol in the Catalan Institute for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona, Spain. His tutor was an Iranian scientist working on laser development who happened to be president of a company manufacturing state-of-the-art infrared lasers.

Just coincidentally one possible application of the technology results in the enrichment of uranium, producing high-grade fissile material required for nuclear reactors and weapons production. Once his Master's degree was completed in 2010 and the visa issue resolved, Mr. Kokabee pursued his doctorate at the University of Texas. He decided to return to Iran  to visit with his ill mother. Government scientists approached him to offer a position on security and military research.

When he refused and attempted to return to his studies in Texas, he was taken into custody by Iranian authorities. Again, he was offered work with the government. That work, he was informed, would free him from incarceration on charges pending. When, once again, he responded negatively, the Islamic Revolutionary Court pressed charges and found him guilty as charged of collaborating with an enemy of the state.

At this juncture, the world scientific community has gathered their strength to protest his continued imprisonment. Since his incarceration he has been recognized with the Andrei Sakharov Prize 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." The American Association for the Advancement of Science honoured him with its Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award.

No fewer than 33 Nobel Prize Laureates in physics have petitioned Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on his behalf, pursuing his freedom. The American Physical Society's Committee on International Freedom of Scientists has called upon Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama as well as their counterparts in the partner-nations of the nuclear weapons treaty with Iran to press the Islamic Republic for Omid Kokabee's release.

For the 2014 Award Ceremony Freedom and Responsibility Award, American Association for Advancement of Sciences
Omid Kokabee
Evin Prison
Tehran, Iran

It is a great and precious honor to be awarded the 2014 Freedom and Responsibility Award by the American Association for Advancement of Sciences. As a young student in atomic physics pursuing the latest groundbreaking experimental research in optics and photonics, it has been a painful shock to be incarcerated for a long period, without any legal justification, against my home country’s national interests and in violation of international human rights’ principles. This episode has been very costly to me personally as well as to the others who have witnessed these illegal actions. But it has also been very educational and I hope the lessons in awareness and vigilance will help prevent such actions being repeated elsewhere in the world.
I will take this opportunity to use this respected podium to declare my absolute innocence as outlined in my own defense and in statements by my honorable lawyer, and based on my acquittal by the Supreme Court. However, my 10-year prison sentence was reaffirmed under pressure from security agencies in another review court. The notorious judge who sentenced me is known for his lack of independence. He and a few other judges are hand-picked to make rubber-stamp decisions. They undermine the Judiciary’s credibility and leave a stain on the majority of judges.
I love my country. Our Iran is a land with an ancient civilization and a highly developed culture. I would never take any step to harm my people. I was only a scientific researcher. I was not involved in any political activities or held any political views. But they threatened to send me to prison for 10 years if I refused to cooperate in nuclear projects with certain organizations against my will – organizations that work against the interests of Iran and the world. For myself and my family it is obvious that it is because of our moral and academic principles that we suffer the hardships of prison, rather than being part of an effort that makes the world suffer. Pressure groups within Iran have blocked any attempts to resolve my situation by preventing my calls for justice from reaching higher authorities.
My brief account here does not contain anything new. These views have already been presented by prominent individuals. But history’s irony is that we must constantly pay the price and repeat these words so that they will be remembered and serve as reminders to remain firm. On the one hand science and technology improves all aspects of humanity. On the other hand, unfortunately, governments, especially authoritarian and inhumane regimes, use science and technology to gain, maintain and impose power. Scientists face a double-edged sword between life and death. They can have a fundamental role in deciding in which direction their knowledge will be used.
Here I would like to point out two things. The first is that scientists are responsible for their work and its impact on society and the future of humanity, just as a mother protects her child and feels responsible in raising her properly. Scientists have a responsibility to refuse cooperation in any project which is harmful to society, such as weapons of mass destruction, the destruction of the environment, or the misuse of science for ideological, false or deceptive purposes by governments or companies. This is something I have strived to play a small part in and I hope my academic colleagues all over the world will hear me closely and commit to the same course of action. This is not a matter limited to the military or specifically weapons of mass destruction. On the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Professor Hans Bethe, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, and a key member of the Manhattan Project, pointed out the danger of all endeavors which harm humanity: “I call on all scientists in all countries to cease and desist from work creating, developing, improving and manufacturing further nuclear weapons – and for that matter, other weapons of potential mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons.”
The second thing I would like to point out is something I have learned in these past four years from living among political prisoners and prisoners of conscience and that is the need to support scientists, engineers and technicians who based on moral and humanitarian principles expose violations by governments and institutions. They expose them to inform the public of state and institutional wrongdoings in order to initiate appropriate reactions that would stop or correct them. These whistle-blowers often face the wrath of the wrongdoers and thus they often pay a heavy price for their disclosures. Therefore they need our support.
Joseph Rotblat, physicist and 1995 Nobel Peace Prize winner, said it so beautifully: “The purpose of some government or industrial research is sometimes concealed, and misleading information is presented to the public. It should be the duty of scientists to expose such malfeasance. Whistle-blowing should become part of the scientists’ ethos. This may bring reprisals: a price to be paid for one’s convictions. The price may be very heavy.”
In this light I suggest that scientific and human rights groups strengthen and expand their activities in this area while at the same time establish a joint international organization that would create the largest network of scientists from around the world. Foremost, such a network would be in charge of training courageous, responsible and humanitarian scientists armed with moral principles that would make them aware of the dangers of misusing scientific and technological advances. Secondly, this organization would rise to the defense of scientists who face the danger of standing up for their humanitarian principles. This is not just a matter for imprisoned scientists but it also includes all other scientists, engineers or technical experts who become vulnerable when they refuse to participate in destructive or inhumane projects or when they expose scientific or technological wrongdoing.
The second part of my address is about the responsibility of scientists to put greater effort into informing the public of the reasons behind minor and major natural events. Of course this is one of the obvious objectives of modern science. But, unfortunately a large portion of the world’s population live in societies that are under the influence of prejudicial propaganda, old superstitions or superficial and pessimistic ideas. Hence I am compelled to emphasize that a lack of understanding of scientific realities and the belief in false ideas, among all ages, allows profiteers to take advantage of the general ignorance in society and lead them to make irresponsible choices that ultimately harms humanity in the many different ways needed to improve life on this planet.
In prison I have been an eyewitness to false beliefs mixed with deep-rooted superstitions among members of society who have a frightening influential role. For this reason one of my important activities in prison has been to organize study groups on the origins of the universe, which have been extremely popular. This has been a very heart-warming experience because it shows individuals who have never been exposed to proper scientific learning are very receptive to correcting their views when they listen to a trusted scientific authority.
Ultimately my message to scientists, especially those of my generation, is that science and scientists are too important and powerful to be at the service of inhumane activities or to the consolidation of dictatorships based on superstition and dogma. Scientists are trained to reduce the pains of humankind and help its survival. You are at the core of empowering humanity and therefore it is you who must courageously carry out your humanitarian responsibilities!

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