Letter to Oberlin Board of Trustees

December 28, 2021

Dear Members of the Oberlin Board of Trustees,

On October 8, 2020, we wrote to President Carmen Twillie Ambar (the “Initial Letter”), setting out our serious concerns regarding the role that Mr. Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, Professor of Religion at Oberlin’s Department of Religion, and the Nancy Schrom Dye Chair of Middle East and North African Studies, played in hiding crimes against humanity in Iran (the “1988 Massacre”) from the international community. Our letter was signed by over 600 people, many of them survivors or bereaved family members of the 1988 Massacre. 

Given that President Ambar and the Oberlin administration have failed to transparently address the issues we set forth in the Initial Letter, we write to make you aware of the case and seek your assistance to ensure transparency and accountability.


As we explained in the Initial Letter, the facts surrounding Mr. Mahallati are very easy to understand. Mahallati served as Iran’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations between 1987 and 1989. During his tenure, in the summer of 1988, Iran’s regime subjected thousands of political prisoners across the country to minutes-long “re-trials” presided over by what the prisoners came to call “Death Commissions.” Based on no more than a few questions about their political or religious beliefs, prisoners who had already faced (albeit inadequate) trials and sentencing, who had served several years in prison, and who had been subjected to gruesome torture, were sent by the Death Commission to hang. A top-ranking Iranian cleric who attempted to stop the killings estimated that at least 3,800 prisoners were killed that summer. Others believe the number was considerably higher.

Amnesty International calls the 1988 Massacre “ongoing crimes against humanity.” Human Rights Watch agrees with this legal assessment. In 2013, Canada’s parliament recognized the 1988 Massacre as constituting crimes against humanity.

We allege, based on contemporaneous evidence (further explained below), that Mr. Mahllati must have known about these crimes and deliberately misled the international community about them. We further believe that, regardless of any legal liability, Mr. Mahallati’s actions were so shockingly immoral that they stand in fundamental opposition to Oberlin’s stated values and commitments. 

To date, our Initial Letter remains unacknowledged by the Oberlin administration, including President Ambar. In fact, President Ambar’s only reaction to our very serious allegations has been to block on social media anyone, including prominent lawyers, activists, former hostages, and survivors, who have merely raised the issue.

The Oberlin “Investigation”

Since Oberlin has refused to acknowledge our Initial Letter, we were shocked to learn on October 15, 2021, via an article in the Oberlin Review, that the College “ initiated its own process to determine [the] validity” of our claims and found “no evidence to corroborate the allegations against Professor Mahallati, including that he had specific knowledge of the murders taking place in Iran.”

There are two significant and related problems with this investigation. The first is that it was conducted in complete secrecy, without speaking to key stakeholders. To our knowledge, none of the people bringing forth the allegations against Mahallati, no experts on matters related to the 1988 Massacre, and no experts on the human rights situation in Iran generally were questioned as part of the investigation. By analogy, imagine a sexual assault investigation in which the whistleblower is blocked on social media by Oberlin’s President, a secret investigation that excludes the victim and sexual assault experts is conducted, and the alleged culprit is announced to be exonerated without any explanation of how the determination was made. Would any reasonable person consider such an investigation to be credible?

The second problem with the investigation is that its finding is patently absurd. Oberlin claims that Mahallati had “no specific knowledge” of the 1988 Massacre. This assertion, which reads as if it was carefully worded by a lawyer, flies in the face of overwhelming evidence. 

As the timeline below should make obvious, it is inconceivable that a reasonable person in Mr. Mahallati’s position would not know about the crimes he was explicitly denying.    In the very unlikely event that he had no “specific knowledge,” it is because he deliberately refused to conduct the most basic inquiry into repeated reports that a heinous massacre was unfolding on watch. The latter possibility, regrettably, is no more exculpatory than the first.    

What Mr. Mahallati Must Have Known

Oberlin expects us, and you, to believe that Iran’s top U.N. diplomat had no knowledge of the mass killings underway. This assertion strains credulity if one simply looks at the well-documented timeline of events.   Oberlin’s student newspaper, the Oberlin Review, stated it best when it wrote that “even if Mahallati did not hear from his own government about the executions, he could not have remained ignorant for long.” 

According to the detailed report of Amnesty International, that organization issued at least sixteen (16) Urgent Action notices between August and December 1988, mobilizing their activists to send letters to Iranian authorities to call for an end to the extrajudicial killings of political prisoners immediately.

On October 13, 1988, the U.N. itself reported that it had evidence that “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 on 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.

Even if at the beginning of the 1988 Massacre Mahallati did not have “specific knowledge,” it would be expected that after reports began piling up, a reasonable person exercising ordinary due diligence in the circumstances would have become aware of the killings. As Iran’s top U.N. diplomat, Mahallati was receiving regular reports from two of the most credible institutions in the world, the U.N., and Amnesty International, about mass killings that were entirely consistent with his government’s past practice. Why did he conduct no investigation of his own, ask no questions, and talk to no experts? In the face of so much evidence, why did he continue to deny the killings? Why did he repeat the lie that the victims were “spies and terrorists”? Why did he call reports about the killings foreign “propaganda”?   Does such behavior seem reasonable for an ethical person who receives credible news about mass killings carried out by the government he serves at the highest level?

Our Request

Oberlin’s President and administration have proven themselves unwilling or unable to deal with this matter in an unbiased fashion. In light of that and the information set out above, we humbly request that the Board of Trustees intervene in this matter and demand a transparent and independent investigation. Any such investigation should involve speaking to the victims, their families, and human rights experts.

In addition, we reiterate the original requests set out in the Initial Letter. In that communication, we called on the College to review the process by which Mr. Mahallati was hired at Oberlin and the process he was granted tenure. It is critical that we know what due diligence was conducted on Mr. Mahallati before his hiring, whether human rights organizations were ever consulted on the role Iran’s former representative to the U.N. may have played in that country’s human rights crisis, whether such widely-available information was ignored. We had also asked that Mr. Mahallati be removed from his position and that Oberlin provide an apology to the victims of the 1988 Massacre and their families for hiring and promoting a person who, the evidence above shows, was involved in hiding the crimes against humanity perpetrated against them.

We seek to work with the Board of Trustees and are happy to speak with you at any time. In the interest of transparency to the large community of victims following this case, we will publicize this letter after January 20, 2022. We hope to hear from you before then so that we can also advise the public that the Board of Trustees is taking appropriate steps.

Sincerely yours,

Kaveh Shahrooz, Lawdan Bazargan, and Committee for Justice for Mahallati Victims

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