The imprisonment of two Iranian HIV physicians, apparently for working with foreign researchers, could have a detrimental effect on scientific collaboration between Iran and the rest of the world, say human rights organisations.
Arash and Kamiar Alaei were sentenced to six and three years in prison respectively during a half-day trial last month (31 December).
The Iranian authorities have charged the brothers with communicating with an "enemy government". They say that the pair collaborated with researchers from around the world — including the United States — attended international conferences and met with nongovernmental HIV/AIDS organisations.
"Those are not crimes — that's good medicine," says Jonathan Hutson, a spokesman for Physicians for Human Rights. He added that the verdicts would have a chilling effect on Iran's academic collaborations.
The situation is puzzling, says an editorial in Nature, since Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicly supported international scientific collaboration.
The journal suggests that an aggravating factor may have been a stated policy of former US president George Bush's administration – to pursue regime change in Iran by supporting 'pro-democracy' elements in the country.
Some Iranian academics have said that such covert policies have left them open to charges such as those made against the Alaei brothers.
Nature 457, 517 (2009)
Nature 457, 511 (2009)