Hiring Mohammad Mahallati Against Oberlin’s Mission and Vision

Editor’s Note: This statement was originally sent in an email to President Carmen Twillie Ambar on Oct. 8 and was signed by 56 family members of the victims and former political prisoners, as well as 577 additional signatories.

Professor of Religion and Nancy Schrom Dye Chair in Middle East and North African Studies Mohammad Jafar Mahallati has denied these allegations. You can read the Review’s comprehensive news coverage here

Dear President Ambar, 

We the undersigned are a group of former political prisoners in Iran, families of executed political prisoners, human rights activists who work for justice and accountability, and international jurists who have examined the record of Iran’s gross human rights abuses. We were deeply disturbed to recently learn that Mr. Mohammad Jafar Mahallati serves as the Nancy Schrom Dye Chair in Middle East and North African Studies at Oberlin College. We believe, based on the information set forth below and available through the links below, that his appointment to this role is at fundamental odds with the values of Oberlin College. As you may know, Mr. Mahallati was Iran’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations between 1987 and 1989. During that time, we believe the evidence linked below demonstrates that his role was to obfuscate and lie to the international community about mass crimes perpetrated by the Iranian regime. 

While Iran’s regime has committed numerous human rights violations throughout its 40-year history, its mass killing of political prisoners in the summer of 1988 stands out for its depravity and cruelty. Over the span of three months, Iran’s regime, based on a Fatwa (Islamic decree) issued by the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ruhollah Khomeini, subjected thousands of political prisoners across the country to minutes-long “re-trials” (which failed to meet all international standards of due process), presided over by what the prisoners came to call “Death Commissions.” Based on no more than a few questions about their political or religious beliefs, prisoners who had already faced (albeit inadequate) trials and sentencing, who had served several years in prison, and who had been subjected to gruesome torture were sent by the Death Commission to hang. Ayatollah Montazeri, the cleric who served as Iran’s second-in-command at the time, estimated that at least 3,800 prisoners were killed that summer. Others believe the number was considerably higher. 

The 1988 massacre is now well-documented. Amnesty International calls the killings “ongoing crimes against humanity.” Human Rights Watch agrees with this legal assessment. In 2012, the Iran Tribunal, a one-of-a-kind grassroots movement modeled after the famous Russell Tribunal of the 1960s, came together to document the atrocities of the Islamic Republic of Iran during the 1980s. The presiding volunteer international judges, who are some of the highest human rights academics and jurists in the world, unanimously concluded that the IRI’s crimes fit the definition of crimes against humanity, as described in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. In 2013, Canada’s parliament recognized the massacre as a crime against humanity. 

According to the detailed report of Amnesty International, the agency issued at least 16 Urgent Action notices between August and December 1988, mobilizing its activists to send letters to Iranian authorities calling for an end to the extrajudicial killings of political prisoners immediately (P.65). The first of these Urgent Actions was issued on Aug. 16, 1988, after the mass execution of supporters of a militant opposition group named the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran and about 11 days before the mass execution of about 1,000 leftist prisoners. Amnesty activists sent thousands of telegrams, telexes, and letters to the head of Iran’s Supreme Court, the Minister of Justice, and the diplomatic representatives of Iran in their respective countries urging “the condemnation of all outstanding death sentences and an end to executions in Iran.” As such, we submit that it would be impossible to believe that any senior leader in Iran, and certainly not its UN Ambassador, was unaware of the atrocity unfolding across that country. 

Regrettably, the record shows that Mr. Mahallati did not use his unique position at the United Nations to draw public attention to these crimes, nor did he publicly implore Iran’s government to end this criminal activity. Instead, he issued statements and delivered speeches denying these crimes, refuting the extent of the executions, and disputing the validity of the names provided in the reports

Amnesty International writes: 

For example, on 29 November 1988, Iran’s permanent representative to the UN in New York, Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, denied the mass executions in a meeting with the UN Special Representative on the situation of human rights in Iran, and claimed that “many killings had in fact occurred on the battlefield, in the context of the war, following the invasion of the Islamic Republic of Iran by [the PMOI, a militant opposition group]”. (p.13) 

Mahallati’s claim, it is worth noting, has been proved categorically false again and again. As noted earlier, many of the men and women executed in 1988 had been in prison for years for non-violent political activity. In some cases, the prisoners had already completed their sentences, but the government still refused to release them. Many of those executed belonged to leftist political organizations that never engaged in an armed uprising against Iran’s government. 

As noted in UN records, Mr. Mahallati continued to perpetrate this falsehood by claiming that broadcasts by opposition groups to Iran “discredited the information provided by [the PMOI]” to the UN Special Representative on Iran (P. 5). He then called the allegations about the mass executions “political propaganda against the Islamic Republic” (P. 77). When the United Nations passed a resolution expressing “grave concern” about the mass executions, Mr. Mohammad Mahallati called the resolution “unjust” and said “a terrorist organization based in Iraq” was the main source of the “fake information” included in it (P. 70). Based on this information, Geoffrey Robertson, a leading international human rights barrister, has argued: 

In considering the complicity of professionals in crimes against humanity, there is no good reason to exclude diplomats who, knowing the truth, nonetheless lie about them to UN bodies to whom they owe a duty of frankness. Iran’s UN ambassador, Jafar Mahallati, consistently denied the massacres and claimed the allegations were propaganda;… Mahallati is said to be living in the US, where he may be liable to civil action for aiding and abetting torture under the Alien Tort Claim Act. (p. 119) 

It is in light of these facts that we were shocked to learn that Oberlin, a school whose mission statement emphasizes “an enduring commitment to a sustainable and just society” is now home to Mr. Mahallati. We believe that the sources linked above demonstrate his past role in the cover-up of crimes against humanity and his blatant lies to the international community in the service of such criminality, and that these are entirely inconsistent with Oberlin’s values. We further believe that his presence at Oberlin is a stain upon your school’s reputation and human rights values. 

It is for this reason that we call upon you to: 

1. review the process by which Mr. Mahallati was hired at Oberlin and the process by which he was granted tenure. It is critical that we know what due diligence was conducted on Mr. Mahallati before his hiring, whether human rights organizations were ever consulted on the role Iran’s former ambassador to the UN may have played in that country’s human rights crisis, and whether such widely-available information was ignored. 

2. remove Mr. Mahallati from his position; and 

3. provide an apology from Oberlin College to the victims of the 1988 massacre and their families for hiring and promoting a person who, the evidence above shows, was involved in hiding the crimes against humanity perpetrated against them. 


Family Members of the Victims and Former Political Prisoners