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Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Credit: Associated Press

Cancer threatens physicist considered prisoner of conscience

Two years ago, we reported on the courage and plight of Omid Kokabee, a doctoral candidate in physics at the University of Texas, Austin; a citizen of Iran; and a prisoner of conscience in his native country. Winner of the American Physical Society’s 2014 Andrei Sakharov Prize for human rights (which he has thus far been unable to accept), in 2012 Kokabee was sentenced to 10 years in prison in Iran. His imprisonment is ostensibly for illegal ties to a hostile foreign government, but according to Amnesty International, it is actually “for his refusal to work on military projects in Iran and as a result of spurious charges related to his legitimate scholarly ties with academic institutions outside of Iran.”

Now, after losing his freedom, Kokabee is in danger of losing his life to malignant kidney cancer.  “Medical tests … have revealed, that after years of seeking medical care that was not responded to, he has been diagnosed with kidney cancer,” says the New York City-based Committee of Concerned Scientists (CCS) in a statement issued 19 April, 3 days after Kokabee received the diagnosis of malignancy.

Kokabee “has experienced medical issues since 2011, including internal bleeding and kidney stones, for which the prison infirmary reportedly prescribed painkillers but which otherwise went untreated,” says a letter from the Scholars at Risk Network in New York City to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also from 19 April. Kokabee, who “has had persistent kidney problems since childhood [that] have been exacerbated by prison conditions[,] … has also suffered recently from heart palpitations, shortness of breath, pain and pressure on the left side of his chest, and ‘migratory’ joint pain,” according to a 2014 Amnesty International report. Now he urgently “needs an immediate nephrectomy to remove all or part of his kidneys,” says the CCS statement. Iran’s attorney general has authorized Kokabee’s transfer to a hospital equipped to do the surgery, the CCS statement continues. According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI), a New York City-based independent nonprofit organization, Kokabee had “surgery on April 20, 2016 to completely remove his right kidney.”

CCS and others are calling for Kokabee not only to receive speedy and appropriate medical care, but also to be released from prison. “Enough evidence has been presented to prove his innocence … in addition to that, he has been eligible for parole for more than two years, … but the judicial authorities have opposed Kokabee’s release,” said his lawyer, Saeed Khalili, on 16 April, as quoted by ICHRI. “The continuation of my client’s imprisonment is not only dangerous to his health, but also without legal basis,” Khalili continued. As ICHRI pointed out, Iran’s criminal code permits a judge to “postpone” the sentence of a prisoner “suffering from physical or mental illness [whose] imprisonment would make his illness worse or delay his recovery.” And, Khalili added, “[e]ven Mr. Javad Larijani [Head of the Iranian Judiciary’s Human Rights Council] promised [Kokabee’s] release in an interview with Iran’s Channel 2 television, in March 2015.”

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