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US-based Iranian professor under fire for hiding facts about 1988 massacre

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Several activists and human rights organizations have launched a campaign against Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, Iran’s former ambassador to the United Nations who now serves as a professor at Oberlin College in Ohio, US, accusing him of denying and hiding the facts about the 1988 massacre of the political prisoners. The campaign is asking the college to strip Mahallati from his tenure and fire him.

In a joint report with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Al Arabiya Farsi conducted interviews and contacted some Iranian and American activists and human rights organizations. Al-Arabiya Farsi found that the Alavi Foundation, a center of influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the United States, has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to McGill University, along with donations to Princeton and Columbia universities, among others, where Mahallati has variously studied and been appointed an interim professor.

The Alavi Foundation, an overseas arm of the The Mostazafan Foundation of Islamic Revolution, is an institution under the direct command of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and has been prosecuted by the US judiciary system and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for supporting and directing the Islamic Republic’s influence operations in US and Canadian higher education institutions. Activists and human rights organizations have since questioned the role the Alavi foundation played in providing a professorship at Oberlin College for Mahallati.

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Lack of accountability

Lawdan Bazargan, an activist and human rights defender who lost her brother, Bijan Bazargan, during the 1988 massacre, told Al Arabiya Farsi that the family members of the victims had contacted Oberlin College and demanded answers but received no response.

“Unfortunately, Ms. Ambar, president of Oberlin College, did not correspond with us after receiving our complaint letter of October 8, 2020, and she also blocked us on Twitter,” Bazargan added.

In 2007, during the presidency of Marvin Krislov, Mahallati was hired at Oberlin College. Krislov was Oberlin College’s President from 2007 to 2017 and contacted Mahallati to create a program to send students from Oberlin College to Iran as guest students.

However, according to Bazargan, “When the implementation of the joint project with Mahallati failed, Krislov created the Nancy Schrom Dye Chair in the Middle East and North African Studies instead, and put Mahallati in charge of it.”

Critics are now saying that Oberlin College should clarify who paid for the professorship for someone with such a record and charges.

A woman holds a poster that reads 1988 Massacre. End Impunity Launch Independent Inquiry as she attends a protest against Iranian President Hassan Rouhani outside of U.N. headquarters. (Reuters)
A woman holds a poster that reads 1988 Massacre. End Impunity Launch Independent Inquiry as she attends a protest against Iranian President Hassan Rouhani outside of U.N. headquarters. (Reuters)

Accusations of involvement in “enforced disappearance”

The human rights organization Justice for Iran earlier sent a letter to the head of Oberlin College calling for the university to take appropriate action against Mohammad Jafar Mahallati because of his role in “hiding the killings” of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, asserting that Mahallati, “could be charged with being a deputy in the crime of enforced disappearance.”

Mahallati is accused of hiding and justifying the widespread executions of political prisoners in Iran in 1988. In the summer of that year, a large number of political prisoners who had previously been sentenced to long prison terms in kangaroo courts were subjected to the questioning regarding their beliefs behind closed doors by a commission and later executed without due process. Their bodies were hastily buried in unmarked mass graves. According to experts from the United Nations and other human rights organizations, systematic killing is a crime against humanity.

After the massacre, the Islamic Republic launched a large-scale campaign to conceal this crime both domestically and internationally.

According to the families of some of the victims, Mahallati, who was based in New York at the time as Iran’s ambassador to the UN, was one of the regime’s most influential figures in advancing this international coverup campaign.

A member of the People's Mujahedin of Iran in France displays portraits of victims on the Esplanade des Invalides in Paris on October 29, 2019 to commemorate the executions of thousands of Iranian political prisoners in 1988. (AFP)
A member of the People's Mujahedin of Iran in France displays portraits of victims on the Esplanade des Invalides in Paris on October 29, 2019 to commemorate the executions of thousands of Iranian political prisoners in 1988. (AFP)

Time for change

Despite the serious accusations of committing crimes against humanity, Mahallati has resided in North America after completing his official service as a representative of the Islamic Republic and has since studied and taught at universities in Canada and the United States.

Mahallati is currently a Professor of Religions and serves as the Nancy Schrom Dye Chair of Middle East and North African Studies at Oberlin College, Ohio, USA, where he has been dubbed the “professor of peace.”

“This incredible scenario is just like the stories of George Orwell,” Lawdan Bazargan said. “How can a criminal with a service record in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of a repressive regime, and his role as its diplomat in the United Nations, who is tainted with so much crime and bloodshed be called a professor of “peace and friendship?”

Observers said that Mahallati, like many pro-Islamic Republic academics, is using his positions in Oberlin college and the credibility and relationships he has gained to advance the Islamic Republic’s goals and prevent further international sanctions against Iran’s regime.

Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-American researcher who was imprisoned in Iran as a hostage from 2016 to 2019 and released after the Trump administration put pressure on the Islamic Republic, told Al Arabiya Farsi, “I am glad that Mohammad Jafar Mahallati of Oberlin College is being investigated for his role in covering up the 1988 Massacre by the Iranian regime.”

“Academic institutions are places of learning,” Wang added.

Under the levy of “academic freedom,” academic institutions in our country should not give members of the Iranian regime a platform to support this regime. “I hope similar scrutiny will be carried out on other regime promoters on American campuses, such as Hossein Mousavian.”

Mahallati has also been accused of antisemitism and anti-Baha’i sentiments.

“Sadly, America’s higher education system has become a safe haven for vicious anti-Semites or even people accused of crimes against humanity such as Professor Mahallati at Oberlin College and many others throughout the country. These individuals should not be given safe haven at the institutions tasked with shaping the minds of the next generation of leadership in America,” Bryan E. Leib, executive director of the group Iranian-Americans for Freedom, told Al-Arabiya Farsi.

Al Arabiya Farsi reached out to Oberlin College officials for this report but all requests relating to Mahallati were ignored. Phone calls and emails sent to Mahallati were likewise left unanswered.

Read more:

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