Arash Alaei and his brother Kamiar earned recognition and acclaim from the World Health Organization, the Asia Society, the Global Health Council, and other organizations for programs they started in Iran to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Unfortunately, they also caught the attention of Iranian authorities.
The Alaei brothers’ arrests in June 2008 were the start of a harrowing journey through Iran’s courts and prisons that ultimately led them to seek asylum in the United States in 2011. It’s a story Arash Alaei shared via Skype at a AAAS event where attendees wrote letters to advocate for the human rights of detained scientists and others.
Scientists need to become more involved in the field of human rights to support their colleagues and protect each other, Alaei said. “As a healthcare worker and as a medical doctor, I have never been in any political parties,” he said. “But they arrested me. So it was very important for me to receive messages from my colleagues.”
Organized by Amnesty International’s Capitol Hill chapter and the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition’s Working Group on the Welfare of Scientists, the 7 December write-a-thon was part of Amnesty International’s annual Write for Rights campaign, held in honor of International Human Rights Day on 10 December.
“Many people don’t know that scientific associations have these human rights programs,” said AAAS senior program associate Theresa Harris. “AAAS has worked on human rights issues since the 1980’s, going back to working for the release of scientists imprisoned during the Cold War.”
“What we’re highlighting is human rights work being done not just by AAAS but also by a number of other scientific societies,” she said. “For example, the American Physical Society and the American Chemical Society have programs to help their colleagues when they are suffering human rights violations or are in danger.”
Attendees had the opportunity to sign letters from Physicians for Human Rights, Scholars at Risk, and the Committee of Concerned Scientists on behalf of scientists and engineers who have been imprisoned unlawfully. “One reason that we have specific concerns for scientists and engineers is because the work of science and engineering involves discovery,” Harris said. “It requires finding the truth and exploring new ideas that question what we know about the world and in certain situations, that’s incredibly difficult.”
“It’s one of the most courageous things you can do to question the status quo,” she added, “and it scares a lot of governments, even governments we don’t think of necessarily as being repressive regimes.”
“Throughout the year, Amnesty groups have small meetings to write letters,” said Jiva Manske, field organizer with Amnesty International’s Mid-Atlantic office. “But there’s really no other time of year like this when groups and individuals from around the country and around the world get together collectively and write letters on a small number of cases as an attempt to release those prisoners of conscience and protect those communities.”
One of the letters that attendees signed advocated for the release of Omid Kokabee. While visiting his family in Iran in February 2011, Kokabee, a physics student at the University of Texas–Austin, was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison for communicating with a hostile government, a charge that he has denied. Since his trial, Kokabee has been sentenced to additional time in prison for teaching prisoners English, Spanish, French, and physics lessons. Reports indicate that authorities are refusing to treat Kokabee for kidney stones, a condition he was diagnosed with by a prison doctor.
From his office at the State University of New York–Albany, Alaei said that he had been sentenced to six years in prison. After letter writing campaigns on his behalf, he was released after three years. If the Iranian government receives letters on Kokabee’s behalf, they may release him early as well, Alaei said. “Maybe the Iranian government doesn’t like to say that they care about international messages,” he said, “but I think they will hear your message.”
Letters from activists also help those suffering from human rights abuses by showing them that they haven’t been forgotten, Alaei said. For several months, Alaei was kept in solitary confinement without access to an attorney or his family. In between interrogations and beatings, guards told him that he had been forgotten and that nobody cared about him.
However, when Alaei’s family visited him in prison months after his arrest, they hugged him and told him not to worry because they would support him. “It was a message that gave me energy because it was very difficult to adapt your mind and your body with that place,” he said.
Human rights activists should also consider the families of political prisoners, Alaei said. During the Persian New Year holiday one year, his mother received a box filled with cards and letters from members of Amnesty International and Physicians for Human Rights, as well as scientists, doctors, and faculty members from around the world. “They said,’ happy new year and we are with you,’” Alaei said. “It was great energy for my family when they received messages. It will be very helpful for families of prisoners and it will send a strong message to governments in Iran and other countries to know international scientists will care about those issues.”
Another Amnesty International petition signed by the attendees addressed the concerns of the people of Bodo, Nigeria, a farming and fishing community impacted by spills from a Shell oil pipeline. The AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project, part of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program, has documented oil spills near Bodo.
Attendees also signed Amnesty International’s letters on behalf of members of the punk group Pussy Riot in Russia; Nabeel Rajab, an activist arrested for sending a tweet in Bahrain; and Hussain Salem Mohammed Almerfedi, a detainee held at Guantanamo Bay without trial since 2003.
Harris also expressed her hope that this event would help strengthen partnerships between the science community and the human rights community through projects like the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition and On-Call Scientists.
“We hope that this is not just one night, that there will be longer-term ideas and collaborations that come out of this,” Harris said. “Because in the end, we’re all working for the same things, for protecting people from human rights violations and for promoting human rights around the world.”
Learn more about the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program.
Learn more about Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign.