A University of Texas at Austin doctoral student is headed to trial today in his native Iran on charges of espionage, according to Science.
Omid Kokabee, 29, who had been studying optics in the physics department, traveled home to Iran during winter break and was detained in late January or early February. When he did not return for classes, faculty members grew concerned, only to find that Kokabee had been detained on suspicion of colluding with the Central Intelligence Agency and giving American officials intelligence on Iran's nuclear technology, according to the magazine report.
Under Iran’s penal code, charges related to espionage can carry the death penalty.
The American Physical Society and the American Optical Society, along with several international groups (European Optical Society and the international optics society SPIE) have made public pleas for Kokabee's release from prison. Nearly 800 people have signed an online petition calling for his release.
The American Physical Society’s letter implored the Iranian government to release Kokabee, citing the vast differences in optical and nuclear physics.
“Mr. Kokabee has no training in nuclear physics, is not politically active and is not associated with any political movement in Iran,” the letter states. “Rather, his primary concerns were his science studies in the field of optics. This area of physics has essentially no overlap with nuclear technology.”
A representative of the Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which represents Iran in Washington, had no comment on the situation.
John Keto, the university’s physics department’s graduate adviser, said Kokabee is a respected physics student and stayed away from political talk. “They charged him with communicating with a hostile foreign government, which I assume means that every Iranian student in the United States would be guilty of this crime,” he said.
The months-long detainment and impending trial have had a chilling effect on other Iranian students at the university, Keto said. Many have said they are concerned about traveling home and will be watching Kokabee's trial with much anxiety, he said.