Protesters decry controversial Oberlin professor (UPDATED)

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This story has been updated with a response from Oberlin College.

OBERLIN — Critics of an Oberlin College professor they claim is a human-rights abuser publicly protested his continued employment at the college Saturday.

About a dozen protesters held and waved signs at the southeast corner of Tappan Square in downtown Oberlin, calling for a transparent investigation into professor Mohammad Jafar Mahallati.

“Ask Mahallati why he lied,” read one of the signs. “Ask Mahallati why he denied.”

“Mahallati represented a murderous regime with no respect for human lives and human rights,” read another.

Mahallati is the Nancy Schrom Dye Chair in Middle East and North African Studies at Oberlin College, where he has taught since 2007.

From 1987 to 1989 he was Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, partially during the Iran-Iraq war. Mahallati has said he was working on the peace process when the war ended in 1988, but critics say he was involved in the state-sponsored execution of thousands of political and religious prisoners by the Iranian regime.

In October 2020, a letter signed by more than 600 people was sent to college President Carmen Twillie Ambar accusing Mahallati of covering up crimes against humanity and calling for him to be fired.

Lawdan Bazargan, whose brother Bijan was arrested and killed by the Iranian regime, said Saturday that Oberlin College is continuing to protect a professor she said committed crimes against humanity.

Mahallati knew for years of Iran’s persecution of political opponents and religious minorities such as the Baha’is and covered it up, said Bazargan, who said she spent 100 days in solitary confinement in Iran when she was 16 after speaking out against the Iran-Iraq war and more time on probation afterward, unable to leave the country or attend school.

She and other protesters passed out flyers Saturday urging Oberlin College students to boycott Mahallati’s classes, to ask Ambar to meet with victims’ families, and to contact the college board of trustees and ask them to take action.

Bazargan said rumors that protesters are “anti-Islamic” and funded by right-wing or pro-Israel factions are untrue. His critics are doctors, Ph.D.s and engineers who were persecuted or lost family under the Iranian regime, she said.

The college is so closely connected to the city financially and socially that other academics, college alumni and former college employees are afraid to speak out publicly against Mahallati, Bazargan said.

“History is hidden because of people like Mahallati,” she said. That he has continued to be allowed to teach students means “he’s raised a new generation of apologists for the regime of Iran.”

In late 2021, Mahallati released a statement in which he said his accusers “have not found a single statement from me that is remotely consistent with their unfounded accusations” and that he believes in religious freedom for all.

The college’s website includes a response to the allegations at bit.ly/3vLNBGq describing the results of the investigation into the claims made by Mahallati’s critics.

Oberlin College spokesman Scott Wargo said the college had no comment on Saturday’s protest, and pointed a reporter to the online fact sheet.

Contact Dave O’Brien at (440) 329-7129 or dobrien@chroniclet.com. Follow him on Twitter @daveobrienCT.

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