Mahallati’s Past as an Apologist for Crimes Against Humanity

Editor’s Note: This statement is part of a broader conversation about allegations brought against Professor of Religion and Nancy Schrom Dye Chair in Middle East and North African Studies Mohammad Jafar Mahallati. These allegations began with an Oct. 8 letter to President Carmen Twillie Ambar. Mahallati has denied these allegations. You can read the Review’s comprehensive news coverage here

Dear President Ambar: 

I am writing to offer new evidence (accessible via hyperlinks) supplementary to the statement made by Family Members of the Victims and Former Political Prisoners and submitted in a letter by Kaveh Shahrooz and Lawdan Bazargan on Oct. 9, 2020. That letter pointed out that Mohammad Jafar Mahallati — current Nancy Schrom Dye Chair of Middle East and North Africa Studies — had, as Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Iran to the United Nations from 1987 to 1989, explicitly denied that the summary executions of thousands of long-term political prisoners in the summer of 1988 in prisons across Iran ever took place and that he presented untrue information to the U.N. to obfuscate the executions. I note that in an Oct. 9 statement to The Oberlin Review that Mr. Mahallati rejected these accusations, claiming that when he was serving at the U.N. he lacked “actual knowledge of these incidents” which he correctly describes as “summary executions,” “horrible acts,” and “crimes against humanity.” 

At the outset, I’d like to note that even prior to the 1988 mass executions of political prisoners, Mr. Mahallati, as a representative of “the Iranian regime’s” laws and practices, including its Islamic penal system, should and would have known that what he today calls “summary executions” were envisaged in the Iranian regime’s Islamic criminal laws. He should and would have known that regulations governing the Islamic Revolutionary Court — which imposed the death penalty on suspected supporters of the opposition — defied every basic tenet of due process; that legislated Islamic crimes such as moharebeh (waging war against God) and irtidad (apostasy), for which these thousands of prisoners were put to death in the summer of 1988, did not fall within the category of the “most serious crimes” for which international law possibly countenances the application of the death penalty; and that since this regime’s inception in 1979, and especially in the early 1980s, suspected supporters of the opposition were being executed by the thousands after the most minimal of trials.

In light of the historical record of these executions, Mr. Mahallati’s rebuttal simply will not suffice as vindication. It is disingenuous of him to “categorically deny any knowledge and therefore responsibility regarding mass executions in Iran” when U.N. documents regarding his service strongly indicate otherwise. It is true that these murders were carried out covertly in prisons from late July to early September 1988, and therefore quite plausible that some government officials, including diplomats, were not apprised of them during the period that they were taking place. But the allegations that Mr. Mahallati must answer are the following: that he took a key role in obstructing the U.N.’s investigation of these executions after they took place; that to this end he fed the U.N. misleading information; that he likely would have known of the executions by November or December 1988, as both the families of the executed and key Tehran officials were aware of the executions by that time; that later, when Mr. Mahallati acknowledged the executions in Feb. 1989, he continued to fend off a U.N. investigation by spreading untruthful and insulting characterizations of the victims. 

The critical point here is that an investigation by the U.N. — the principal international organization for promoting human rights — was the only channel available to the victims and families through which to seek information about the circumstances of the execution of their loved ones, including their places of burial. There remain no mechanisms whatsoever within Iran that could provide the truth to these families. A U.N. investigation was their only hope. Mr. Mahallati was the key figure in that channel, but he failed to pursue the truth and chose instead to propagate misinformation in order to shut down this vital investigation at any cost. 

In his recent rebuttal, Mr. Mahallati denied “actual” and “any” knowledge of these “horrible acts” and “crimes against humanity.” If he had no knowledge of the matter even after they had taken place, was it not wrong of him, when presented with concrete allegations by the U.N., to deny them outright and attempt to shut them down with misinformation? As ambassador to the U.N., it was Mr. Mahallati’s duty to investigate and shed light on the growing number of horrifying reports referred to him from late Aug. 1988 onwards by U.N. mechanisms. For example, as reported in a Feb. 1989 U.N. document, on Nov. 9, 1988, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Summary or Arbitrary Executions S. Amos Wako submitted the following information to the Commission on Human Rights: 

“Since July 1988, a large number of prisoners had been executed in various parts of the country, without trial or with a trial of a summary nature.” 

“On 28 July 1988, 200 prisoners said to be PMOI sympathizers, were executed in Evin Prison. In Machad, 50 other PMOI sympathizers were executed.” 

“On 14, 15 and 16 August 1988, 860 corpses were transferred from Evin Prison to the Behecht Zahra cementery [sic].” 

As U.N. records show, up until Nov. 29, 1988, neither Mr. Mahallati — who was in New York — nor his colleague Sirus Nasseri — who was in Geneva — responded to the horrifying reports transmitted to them by Mr. Wako, as well as by U.N. Special Representative on the Human Rights Situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran Reynaldo-Galindo Pohl. As noted in Mr. Shahrooz and Ms. Bazargan’s letter, when Mr. Mahallati finally agreed to address this matter in a Nov. 29, 1988 meeting with Mr. Pohl, he not only categorically denied the allegations of summary executions but also sought to cloud the matter by suggesting that these deaths were connected with the “many killings [that] 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.” He also tried to discredit the allegations by showing Mr. Pohl a collection of NLA-produced agitprop films, which he claimed to be the kind of “political and propaganda material” that discredited “the information provided by that organization to the Special Representative.” But Mr. Mahallati would have been well aware that the battlefield killings of NLA soldiers — which took place from July 25 to July 27, 1988, just prior to the summary execution of political prisoners — was a completely separate event. At this time, it would have been scarcely plausible that Mr Mahallati was not aware that thousands of summary executions had taken place in prisons across Iran. 

The question of timing is critical to the question of what Mr. Mahallati knew, and when. Tehran officials favorable to Mr. Mahallati also claimed ignorance about the executions while they were being carried out from late July to early Sept. Seyyed Ali Khamenei, the President of Iran at the time, and Mir-Hossein Moussavi, the former Prime Minister, have indicated that they were informed of the executions at the latest in early Sept. 1988. Yet we have Mr. Mahallati’s assurance that the entire time that he was conversing with U.N. officials on this matter — from the end of Nov. 1988 to the end of March 1989 — he knew nothing of the executions and received “not a single communication” from Tehran on the matter. Does this mean that his tale suggesting that the victims were battlefield casualties was his personal invention, and that the PMOI agitprop videotape he procured to mislead Mr. Pohl was presented of his personal initiative? Or else, does this mean someone else was impersonating Mr. Mahallati at the Nov. 29 encounter with Mr. Pohl and also on the two further well-documented occasions on Dec. 8, 1988, and Feb. 28, 1989, when Mr. Mahallati made similar attempts to shut down the U.N.’s investigation of this matter? 

Mr. Mahallati offered a similar denial on Dec. 8, 1988, in his oral statement at the 75th meeting of the 43rd session of the U.N. General Assembly. In this meeting, his mission was to prevent the adoption of a U.N. Resolution condemning his government’s extensive patterns of human rights violations. These included the recent “renewed wave of executions in the period July-September 1988 whereby a large number of persons died because of their political convictions,” which Pohl had reported in his Oct. 3, 1988 interim report. In his shrill oral statement, Mr. Mahallati continued to suggest that the Special Representative was working on “misinformation provided … by a terrorist group[’s] … baseless allegations.” He called the Resolution a “political decision” by “certain sponsors” who, in order “to make a propagandistic campaign in favor of a handful of foreign elements in Iran,” made “the interim report of the Special Representative … the basis of their obsession.” 

As the historical record shows, from late Oct. to early Dec. 1988, thousands of families — whose relatives in prison had disappeared for nearly four months since late July 1988 — were summoned individually and notified of their loved ones’ execution. Once the secret executions had been confirmed to the families, that is, from early Dec. 1988 onwards, Tehran officials began to acknowledge the executions publicly both in the domestic and international media. 

Three months later on Feb. 28, 1989, Mr. Mahallati was addressed the U.N. in a Note verbale — a text representing a formal record of information delivered orally — to the Secretary-General. By this time, even though Mr. Mahallati was still attempting to fend off international criticism and scrutiny of those executions, like the Tehran government he represented, he was no longer denying that people “inside prisons” had been executed. A different tactic was deployed this time. The Note was drafted specifically to counter an Amnesty International briefing in Dec.  of 1988, which had for the first time documented the scale and scope of the killings and recorded the authorities’ shift of policy from denying the executions to acknowledging them. AI’s briefing presented direct testimonial evidence from families of both groups of executed prisoners, the PMOI and the “secular leftist,” gave more than 300 names of victims concluding that “the real total could amount to thousands,” and recorded the following excerpt from an early December Radio statement made by the then President, Seyyed Ali Khamenei: 

“Do you think we should greet with sweets those who have links from inside prison with the hypocrites [term used for members of PMOI] who mounted an armed attack inside the territory of the Islamic Republic? … What should we do to them if that contact is established? They are condemned to death and we will execute them.” 

Mr. Mahallati’s Note verbale begins by suggesting that both groups of the executed prisoners mentioned in AI’s Dec. 13, 1988, are indefensible, i.e. PMOI prisoners who were executed as mohareb (one who is at war with God) as well as secular leftist prisoners who were executed as mortad (an apostate). Consistent with Tehran’s policy of circumventing any questions about the executed secular leftist prisoners, the untrue and insulting elaborations that the Note offers on the executions pertains only to PMOI prisoners whom Mr. Mahallati’s President had already falsely accused of having had “links from inside prison with the hypocrites.” The note’s explanation of Tehran’s policy shift from denial to acknowledgment of the executions is textbook doublespeak: “Indeed, authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran have always denied the existence of any political executions, but that does not contradict other subsequent statements which have confirmed that spies and terrorists have been executed.” Mr. Mahallati’s argument appears to be that the executions did take place after all, but they were executions of persons who were despicable and not worthy to live and therefore, presumably, not worthy of due process of law either. His Note explicitly applies the following terms to the thousands of men and women who were executed after trials that were summary in the extreme: spies, terrorists, mercenaries, assassins, criminals, and “internal traitors during time of war”. This time Mr. Mahallati’s tactic was to bury the atrocity in abusive and untrue epithets directed at the victims. 

As demonstrated above, Mr. Mahallati’s conduct at the U.N. cannot be excused as the standard equivocations of a professional diplomat. He was positioned between bereaved families, fellow Iranians, and the U.N., which represented their sole hope for truth and some measure of justice. It is regrettable to report that the tactics which were deployed by Mr. Mahallati at the U.N. prior to his resignation in March 1989 and which were continued afterward by other U.N. ambassadors actually worked, and today, 32 years later, that U.N. investigation has still not taken place. 

Kaveh Shahrooz and Lawdan Bazargan, the two people who took the initiative in the letter you received, both lost loved ones in the 1988 mass summary executions. Kaveh Shahrooz’s 28-year-old uncle, Mehrdad Ashtari, was executed as a mohareb after serving eight years of a 10-year sentence for speaking in support of the PMOI. Lawdan Bazargan’s 29 year-old-brother, Bijan Bazargan, was executed as a mortad after serving six years of a 10-year sentence for saying that he was a Marxist and rejected Islam. 

It is regrettable that during the past 32 years Mr. Mahallati has not mentioned a single word about what he today describes as “crimes against humanity,” let alone own up to his behavior as an apologist for these “crimes against humanity,” apologize to the victims’ families, and assist them in their quest for truth and justice. It is even more regrettable that in his Oct. 9, 2020 rebuttal statement, not only has Mr. Mahallati continued to do the same but, just as he maligned the victims of the original atrocity, he also chose to malign Kaveh Shahrooz, Lawdan Bazargan, and the 624 other signatories by implying that they are merely “war-lobby protagonists” attacking his “longtime anti-war activism.” 

Therefore, in agreement with the 626 signatories of last week’s letter to you, I, too, like to stress that Mr. Mahallati’s past career as an apologist for crimes against humanity, and the insults he has offered to its victims and their relatives in no way, shape or form fit in a university setting, much less in a teacher of peacemaking, ethics, forgiveness, and friendship, as proclaimed in his academic resumé.