We Demand Transparent Investigation of Mohammad Mahallati

On Oct. 8, 2020, we sent a letter to Oberlin College President Carmen Twillie Ambar signed by hundreds of victims, survivors, and human rights experts at leading organizations. The letter alleged that, in his role as U.N. Ambassador for Iran, Mr. Mohammad Jafar Mahallati helped cover up mass killings that occurred in Iran during the summer of 1988. We asked for a fair investigation into the matter, but our letter remains unacknowledged by the College.

So, we were shocked to learn through an article in The Oberlin Review that the College claims to have conducted an internal investigation that exonerated Mr. Mahallati. 

The result of the investigation is surprising for several reasons, the first being that Oberlin has refused to engage with us since we brought attention to Mr. Mahallati’s past. As an analogy, imagine a sexual assault investigation in which Oberlin refused to speak with the victim, refused to disclose its investigative process, and simply announced that the accused was not guilty. Would you consider such an investigation credible?

We should note that not only has Oberlin refused to meet with the victims to discuss the case, but lawyers, former hostages, victims’ families, and journalists say that they have been blocked on social media by President Ambar for raising the issue, no matter how respectfully. To continue the earlier analogy, would President Ambar have reacted similarly to hundreds of victims raising allegations of sexual assault? If not, why would she allegedly block people who have raised concerns about the role of an Oberlin professor implicated in the cover-up of a mass killing that Amnesty International and Canada’s Parliament have both determined to constitute a crime against humanity? Does President Ambar not believe that our lives matter?

Oberlin’s administrators further claim that “the College could find no evidence to corroborate the allegations against Professor Mahallati, including that he had specific knowledge of the murders taking place in Iran.”

This claim is shocking to us because the evidence is, in fact, overwhelming. Oberlin’s investigators must have exerted great effort not to find it.

The case against Mr. Mahallati is rather simple, and Oberlin does not have to take our word for it. It merely needs to consult readily available U.N. documents and Amnesty International reports. Those very documents are currently being used by Swedish prosecutors as the basis for a high-profile trial of a man implicated in the 1988 massacre. 

The facts are as follows:

Over the span of five months in 1988, Iran’s regime subjected thousands of political prisoners across the country to minutes-long “re-trials” — that failed to meet any international standards of due process — and were presided over by what prisoners came to call “Death Commissions.” Based on no more than a few questions about their political or religious beliefs, about 5,000 prisoners were killed that summer.

During the summer in which these killings took place, Mr. Mahallati was Iran’s U.N. ambassador.

In a detailed report from Amnesty International, the organization notes that it had issued at least 16 urgent action notices in 1988, starting on Aug. 16, alerting the international community that mass killings were occurring in Iran’s prisons. 

On Oct. 13, 1988, the U.N. itself reported that on July 28, 1988, “200 persons described as political prisoners … had been massacred in the central hall of Evin prison,” and that from Aug. 14–16, “860 bodies of executed political prisoners had been transferred” to a mass grave.

According to U.N. reports, in November 1988 — three months after Amnesty International publicized the mass murder campaign — Mr. Mahallati “denied the mass executions in a meeting with the U.N. Special Representative on the situation of human rights in Iran.”

Also in November 1988, The New York Times reported that Mr. Mahallati fought hard against a U.N. resolution that condemned Iran’s human rights record, including “a renewed wave of executions in the period July–September 1988 whereby a large number of persons died because of their political convictions.” According to the news report, Mr. Mahallati said that a report condemning Iran’s mass human rights violations constituted a “confrontation” with that country. 

In an oral statement issued at the U.N. in December 1988 — again, four months after Amnesty International’s urgent alerts, months after the U.N. took note of the killings, and several months after thousands of families had spoken out about the execution of their loved ones — Mr. Mahallati made baseless allegations that reports of the killings were “misinformation” and an effort to “to make a propagandistic campaign in favor of a handful of foreign elements in Iran.”

In February 1989, in another oral statement to the U.N. intended to counter an Amnesty International briefing that laid out all the facts about the killings, Mr. Mahallati said that the Iranian regime had only executed “spies and terrorists.” He continued to deny these killings, calling them “political propaganda against the Islamic Republic.”

As the timeline outlined above makes clear, many of the institutions focused on human rights in Iran were aware of the mass killings taking place in Iran’s prisons. Yet Oberlin’s investigators expect us to believe that Iran’s highest-ranking diplomat had no “specific knowledge” of the killings and made no inquiries before denying this mass crime. Can Oberlin’s risible finding be called anything but a whitewash?

We therefore refuse to accept Oberlin’s internal finding and will continue our campaign by all available legal means. Our demands are simple and logical:

The College must publish who conducted its investigation and what evidence they considered.

Since the College has shown itself unwilling to conduct a fair and transparent investigation into Mr. Mahallati’s past, we demand a neutral third-party investigator be appointed and that the investigator engage with the complainants.

The people of Iran have fought for over three decades to bring the perpetrators of the 1988 massacre to justice. They expect no justice from Iran’s regime. It is thus disappointing to find a liberal school that boasts of its commitment to justice behaving like that regime.

Thousands of victims of the single largest mass killing in Iranian history and their families need Oberlin to live up to its own ideals.