AUSTIN (AP) — Officials have rejected a request by University of Texas President Bill Powers to allow him to issue an official statement on the plight of an Iranian graduate student who is now serving a 10-year prison sentence in his native country.
The former UT Austin student, Omid Kokabee, had been studying optics in the physics department when he was arrested February 2011 at Tehran's international airport as he was about to get on a flight to return to the U.S. after a short vacation in Iran. Iranian officials accused Kokabee of espionage. He was convicted in May.
The Austin American-Statesman reported Saturday that Powers had sought a waiver of UT System rules that allow only the board president or UT system chancellor to comment on matters of a political or controversial nature.
"While we are all personally very sympathetic to the apparent situation of Mr. Omid Kokabee ... this is not a matter upon which it is appropriate for the University of Texas System to take an official position," UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa told Powers in a July 3 letter.
While scientists and professors worldwide have advocated on Kokabee's behalf, many have been critical of UT for not calling for his release.
Scientific and academic groups in several countries have submitted petitions and letters to the Iranian government calling for Kokabee's release, said Eugene Chudnovsky, a physics and astronomy professor at Lehman College in New York.
Aside from a petition started by UT physics professor Herbert Berk, "I am concerned the University of Texas at Austin is not doing enough on his behalf," Chudnovsky said. "I think people are misinterpreting these rules in favor of non-action."
Berk said he understands that it is not the university's policy to get involved in political disputes.
However, "I think in this particular case, at this stage, it might be appropriate for UT to say something," Berk said.
"Many faculty, students and other members of the UT community are gravely concerned about Omid Kokabee's plight," university spokesman Gary Susswein said. "We strongly encourage them to work with human rights organizations to bring attention to the situation."
Kokabee, 29, had been working on his doctorate at UT since 2010.