Oberlin College Should Reopen Mahallati Investigation

On Dec. 12, 2022, President Carmen Twillie Ambar received a letter from three prominent Iranian-born human rights advocates: Nobel Peace Prize laureate and lawyer Dr. Shirin Ebadi; acclaimed author of the international bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran Dr. Azar Nafisi; and historian and co-founder of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran, located in Washington, D.C., Dr. Ladan Boroumand. In their letter, Ebadi, Nafisi, and Boroumand call upon President Ambar to conduct a new investigation of Professor of Religion  Mohammad Jafar Mahallati with respect to his role in covering up Iran’s 1988 prison massacres. The 1988 prison massacres refer to a crime against humanity that took place during Mahallati’s tenure as Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations from 1987–1989, when several thousand leftist political prisoners were summarily executed on orders of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. In 2020, the families of the prison massacre victims organized a campaign to revoke Professor Mahallati’s tenure on the grounds that his deliberate obfuscation of the massacres and lack of contrition made him morally unfit to be a professor at Oberlin.

Faced with intense media scrutiny, Oberlin College initiated an internal investigation into the allegations and released a fact sheet summarizing its findings on Oct. 28, 2021. The report claimed that the institution had engaged a law firm to investigate the allegations and had conducted several clarifying conversations with Professor Mahallati. The report took at face value that Mahallati’s residence in New York meant that he was not aware of the prison massacres, even though it is well known that he was receiving alarming reports about mass atrocities from Amnesty International and credible news sources at the time. Additionally, protesters staged demonstrations in 1988 outside the U.N. Headquarters where Mahallati’s office was located. The report went on to highlight Mahallati’s constructive role in ending the Iran Iraq War and depicted him as an exemplary professor devoted to humanitarian causes. The College report’s conclusions contradict the 2018 Amnesty International Report — “Iran: Blood-soaked Secrets” — as well as the earlier 2011 report by internationally renowned human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson — “The Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran, 1988”. 

Ebadi, Nafisi, and Boroumand claim that the “secretive” manner in which Oberlin College conducted its review and the report’s “bizarre findings” motivated them to write the letter. The authors underscore that the College did not explain how it came to the conclusions published in the report, ignored evidence from human rights experts, and refused to engage in dialogue with the victims’ relatives. As a result, the authors conclude, the College’s handling of the affair represents “an exercise in whitewashing a controversy rather than an attempt to arrive at the truth.” In concluding their letter, the authors call on President Ambar to allow a neutral “third party to conduct a transparent investigation of the allegations against Mahallati.”

Ebadi, Nafisi, and Boroumand have confirmed that they have not received a response from the College to date. Quite apart from the high public profile of these human rights advocates, their letter comes at a critical juncture in Iranian history. Iranian women and their male supporters have launched nationwide protests designed to dismantle repressive gender laws imposed by the clerical regime. The Iranian regime’s response has been vicious: according to the Human Rights Activist News Agency, as of Jan. 29, 527 protesters were killed — 71 of them minors — and nearly 20,000 were arrested. The presidents of major academic institutions, including Case Western Reserve University, have issued statements publicly affirming their support for the Iranian community, whereas President Ambar and Oberlin College remain silent. Let us make this outrageous hypocrisy patently obvious: The institution that is justly proud of its role as a historic pioneer in women’s education and women’s rights refuses to condemn a religious autocracy that is killing women who wish to discard the veil, wear jeans, or dance in public with their friends. 

As for Professor Mahallati, to the best of our knowledge, he has never shown any contrition about the 1988 massacres. While in his courses and public events Professor Mahallati professes values of peace and friendship in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela — in 2016 he organized an online Peace Posters Dialogue Project at the Mary Church Terrell Main Library to which Iranian art students from his hometown of Shiraz contributed — he remains silent about the current violations of civil rights and women’s rights in Iran. The Islamic Republic of Iran has a long history of demonizing its victims and opponents as imperialist warmongers — an umbrella slogan that seeks to discredit regime critics of very different political persuasions, but one that is very difficult to apply to the leftist revolutionaries and others, like members of the minority Baha’i faith and Kurdish rebels, whom the regime brutally executed after holding them captive for years beforehand. 

Oberlin College should not be complicit with this strategy of discreditation. We demand that President Ambar respond to the request of prominent human rights activists and conduct a more transparent investigation of Mahallati’s role in covering up the 1988 massacres. The College should also consider Amnesty International’s most recent report, published Feb. 6, 2023, which provides a more thorough account of the role of Iranian diplomats, including Professor Mahallati, in deliberately deceiving international public opinion. Rather than summarily dismissing the victims’ claims, the College should follow standard academic and ethical practice, consider the evidence provided in all the above-mentioned human rights reports, and conduct its investigation in a transparent and public manner.