Religion Professor Denies Accusations of Human Rights Abuse Cover-Up

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Jennifer Manna

Professor of Religion and Nancy Schrom Dye Chair in Middle East and North African Studies Mohammad Jafar Mahallati denies recent allegations claiming that he covered up human rights violations in Iran in the late 1980s.

A letter calling for the removal of a faculty member was sent to President Carmen Twillie Ambar yesterday, alleging that the professor participated in covering up the Iranian regime’s 1988 mass killing of political prisoners. The letter was written by human rights activists Kaveh Shahrooz and Lawdan Bazargan and is signed by 56 family members of the victims and former political prisoners, as well as 577 other signatories. The faculty member, Professor of Religion and Nancy Schrom Dye Chair in Middle East and North African Studies Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, denies these allegations.

Prior to coming to Oberlin, Mahallati served as Iran’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 1987-1989. In their letter, Shahrooz and Bazargan say that the Iranian regime was particularly violent during this period, killing over 3,800 people who had been imprisoned without fair trial for their political or religious beliefs during the summer of 1988.

The letter claims that Mahallati lied to the U.N. about the ongoing human rights violations in Iran, preventing the international community from responding and thereby enabling the country to continue committing atrocities. However, Mahallati says that he had no knowledge that the Iranian regime was committing these crimes.

“The accusers fail to provide a single solid document as evidence of my actual knowledge of these incidents,” Mahallati wrote in his statement to the Review. “With no concrete evidence, they infer that I must have been informed and intentionally denied these atrocities. I categorically deny any knowledge and therefore responsibility regarding mass executions in Iran when I was serving at the United Nations.”

Shahrooz and Bazargan’s letter contradicts Mahallati’s statement and asserts that Amnesty International activists advised diplomats and other authorities of the human rights abuses and called on them to take a stand. 

“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,’” Shahrooz and Bazargan write. “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.”

According to a 1989 report by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Mahallati, serving as Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the U.N., denied reports of executions from the previous year. 

“The Permanent Representative referred to the alleged wave of executions mentioned in the interim report and denied the allegations,” the report states. “He indicated 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 organization called the National Liberation Army.”

Mahallati maintains that he was unaware of the crimes while in his role as ambassador.

“I was in New York the entire summer of 1988, focusing on peacemaking between Iran and Iraq and did not receive any briefing regarding executions,” Mahallati wrote. “There was not a single communication from Tehran to Iran’s UN embassy informing Iranian diplomats of those incidents.” 

Shahrooz replied to Mahallati’s letter earlier this afternoon. 

“He is on the record denying [to the U.N. that] the executions were taking place, calling the allegations ‘nothing but propaganda,’” Shahrooz wrote in a Twitter post at 3 p.m. today. “When presented with evidence of a massacre taking place in real time by his government, a responsible diplomat who cares about human rights would first indicate that he has not been briefed on the allegations and then seek unbiased sources of information. … Mr. Mahallati’s behavior was not that of a man who is uninformed, but one who is involved in a cover-up of mass murder.”

Shahrooz believes that Mahallati’s alleged inaction in 1988 has had lasting impacts. 

“Unfortunately, I think the consequences of his actions have been the desecration of the memory of thousands of people needlessly killed,” Shahrooz said. “As Amnesty International notes, this crime against humanity continues — family members that live in Iran are still not allowed to speak about their loved ones. They’re still not allowed to gather. They still don’t know where their loved ones are buried. And I think there’s a direct line between the lies told with the United Nations and the actions of the Iranian government still to this day.”

Mahallati stands by his work as a diplomat, and states that his record shows the strides he made to broker peace between Iran and Iraq. 

“During my short-lived ambassadorial position (1987-1989), I was focused on peacemaking efforts to end the Iran-Iraq War, the most prolonged and devastating war in modern history,” Mahallati wrote. “The U.N. and public media records unequivocally demonstrate that in encouraging peace between my country and Iraq, I went beyond my mandate and was the very first Iranian official who publicly announced Iran’s acceptance of the U.N.’s Security Council resolution 598 for peace. … My accusers overlook these well-documented peacemaking efforts and the fact that I risked my ambassadorial position for that purpose. ”

Following the Security Council resolution for peace, the U.N. report reflected Mahallati’s position that the government should move to address human rights. 

“The Permanent Representative indicated that, since the cease-fire had been achieved in the war with Iraq, his Government was in a better position to turn its attention to the question of human rights,” the report states. 

Mahallati has worked at Oberlin since 2007 and specializes in Islamic and peace studies. He founded the Friendship Initiative to promote international, interfaith, and intercultural justice and peace and hosts the Oberlin Friendship Festival annually. 

“I have dedicated my life to researching, teaching, and writing about peace and friendship,” Mahallati wrote. “All my scholarly and artistic works in English, Persian, and Arabic focus on international and interpersonal peace and friendship. These pursuits are where I will continue to focus my energies, in the hope of contributing to a better world.”

Shahrooz and the other signatories, including Iranian human rights activist Masih Alinejad and author Azar Nafisi, called for his termination by the College because they think that his previous actions are antithetical to the College’s values.  

“At the moment our plan really is just to bring attention and appeal to the better angels at Oberlin and to hold up their vision statement and their values and say that the continuing employment of this man at your university is inconsistent with those values,” Shahrooz said.

The College has stated that they are in touch with Mahallati to gather further information.