SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: January 30, 2011

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Prosecution

Institution(s):University of Texas-Austin

Region & Country:Southern Asia | Iran

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On January 30, 2011, Iranian authorities reportedly arrested doctoral student Omid Kokabee, later sentencing him to ten years in prison on charges of “communicating with a hostile government.”

Mr. Kokabee holds a master’s degree in photonics from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia and in 2010 began doctoral studies in physics at the University of Texas, Austin. Mr. Kokabee, whose research focuses on laser physics, has reported that, since as early as 2005, he has received invitations to work on military and intelligence projects, as well as an offer of admission to a PhD program funded by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), all of which he has refused. On January 29, 2011, one day before he was scheduled to return to the US after family visit in Iran, a senior AEOI official reportedly met with Mr. Kokabee to discuss an employment opportunity, which he rejected. On January 30, while waiting at the airport to board his flight to the US, the authorities arrested Mr. Kokabee and put him in solitary confinement for over a month.

On May 13, 2012, after fifteen months in pre-trial detention, Tehran’s Revolutionary Court sentenced Mr. Kokabee to ten years in prison on apparently unsubstantiated charges of “communicating with a hostile government.” On October 24, 2014, in response to a case review requested by Mr. Kokabee’s lawyer, Iran’s Supreme Court rejected the legal basis for his sentencing, stating that there was no evidence to substantiate the charges or conviction and that the Revolutionary Court had misinterpreted Article 508 of the Islamic Penal Code, as “presently no country is in a state of hostility towards Iran.” However, in early January 2015, Branch 54 of the Tehran Appeals Court reinstated the charges and the ten-year prison sentence reportedly without giving any explanation.

Since his imprisonment in January 2011, Mr. Kokabee has reported escalating health issues, including internal bleeding and kidney stones, for which he was reportedly prescribed painkillers. In April 2016, Mr. Kokabee’s lawyer announced that he had been diagnosed with kidney cancer and would undergo surgery to remove his right kidney on April 20. On May 25, Mr. Kokabee was granted renewable temporary medical leave after his friends posted bail of 5 billion Iranian Rials (roughly US $165,000).

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arbitrary imprisonment and prosecution of a scholar in apparent retaliation for his refusal to conduct military-related research for government authorities. The arrest, prolonged detention, and conviction of a scholar without substantial evidence, together with reports that he was denied access to proper medical treatment, suggest a concerning disregard for international standards of due process, fair trial, and detention, as guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran has acceded. In addition to the harm to the victim, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and undermine democratic society generally. State authorities have a responsibility to refrain from arbitrary arrest and prosecution of scholars for peacefully exercising their internationally recognized right to academic freedom, education and freedom of movement.


On August 29, 2016, Iranian authorities reportedly granted Mr. Kokabee parole. While he is now free to leave the country, authorities may revoke his parole, which would require him to serve the remaining three years of his sentence.