By Jason Hawk
Nov 03, 2021 5:00 AM
OBERLIN — Their fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, classmates and friends were put to death and buried in mass graves.
The families of political prisoners executed in 1988 under the regime of Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini gathered Tuesday on Tappan Square with one goal in mind: They want to see Oberlin College religion professor Mohammad Jafar Mahallati fired.
Mahallati was Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations when Khomeini had thousands of opponents — estimates range from 5,000 to 30,000 — subjected to sham trials and moments later put to death.
Most were younger than 25, college educated and part of leftist groups such as the People’s Mujahedin of Iran.
About 75 people took part in the protest across the street from the college’s Cox Administration Building. Some were part of a reenactment of the trials, in which dissidents were asked whether they believed in Allah.
Lawdan Bazargan’s brother Bijan was among those arrested and killed.
She took the microphone Tuesday “to call for full transparency of (Mahallati’s) criminal past.”
Bazargan is one of the organizers of the Oberlin Committee for Justice for Mahallati’s Victims, a group that has unsuccessfully petitioned for the college to terminate the professor.
It sent out mailers to Oberlin residents ahead of the protest directing people to visit mothersofkhavaran.com, named for one of the sites where mass graves have been discovered.
“Mahallati’s presence at Oberlin College is a disgrace to the education system,” the website says. “As American citizens, we must champion an education system free of bigots, murderers and people accused of crimes against humanity. Professor Mahallati has no place in our higher education system.”
The return address on the flier is 173 W. Lorain St., Oberlin, which is the college’s official mailing address.
Scott Wargo, director of media relations, said Oberlin College has no connection to the mailers.
During a video call to protesters, Kaveh Shahrooz, a Canadian attorney representing the protesters, called the college “a guilty party” and “a college that protects evil men.”
His uncle was hung to death. Shahrooz said he feels Oberlin College is preventing Mahallati from being held accountable.
He said Mahallati, as a diplomat, helped cover up the executions in Iran.
Amnesty International made similar accusations in its 2018 report on the killings, titled “Blood-Soaked Secrets.”
It said Mahallati “denied the mass executions in a meeting with the U.N. special representative on the situation of human rights in Iran, and claimed that ‘many killings had in fact occurred on the battlefield, in the context of the war, following the invasion of the Islamic Republic of Iran by’” the People’s Mujahedin of Iran.
When Bazargan and others confronted the college a year ago about Mahallati’s past, the college said it would investigate.
“After consulting a number of sources and evaluating the public record, 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,” said a statement from the college.
Information provided by Wargo said Mahallati, during internal conversations with the college, denied the allegations. Through a law firm, Oberlin College hired investigators to gather and evaluate information from 1988, and their findings did not support the accusations.
Mahallati also issued a statement, saying the official positions he took at the U.N. during his tenure do not portray his personal views.
“It is important to note that my accusers have not found a single statement from me that is remotely consistent with their unfounded accusations,” he wrote.
“I firmly believe that all human beings including Muslims, Jews, Bahais and others must be free and fully respected in choosing their faith and must enjoy religious freedom irrespective of their ethnicity, nationality and other identity factors,” he added.
Mahallati said he sympathizes with the victims of human-rights abuses, and is against all kinds of capital punishment “because, based on Abrahamic teachings, even in the extreme cases of proven murder, there must be a chance for apology and forgiveness.”
His lawyer, Gregory Kehoe of the firm Greenberg Traurig, said criticisms leveled against Mahallati are “completely unjustified and without merit. For more than three decades, Professor Mahallati has consistently dedicated his life to global peacemaking and research, teaching and writing about religious tolerance, peace and friendship.”
He said secret death commissions carried out the murders of political dissidents, and Mahallati, who was in New York at the time, had “no knowledge in real time about the covert executions, nor did he attempt to conceal the facts once they were revealed.”
Ray English, an Oberlin city councilman, also defended Mahallati.
“He is a sincere person who has long promoted peace and friendship across lines of conflict and difference, sometimes at personal risk to himself,” said English, who briefly attended the protest Tuesday. “He has been instrumental in promoting the Friendship Initiative in our community and has taught a course on friendship at the college for many years. His assertion that he was focused on ending the Iran Iraq War when he was Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations in 1988-89 and did not know of atrocities taking place inside Iran is totally consistent with the good human being I know him to be.”
Fatemeh Pishdadian does not feel the same way.
Both her parents were executed by the regime when Pishdadian was 8 months old, and a maternal cousin was also killed. Pishdadian lived in Iran until 2009, when she moved to Cleveland, and said she was angered to learn about Mahallati’s position at Oberlin.
She said she traveled to Tappan Square on Tuesday to “protest against impunity.”
“This is infuriating that these people have made a living hell for us,” she said. “They’ve taken away our loved ones and now they live here, in the West, where they enjoy all the benefits of America without being held accountable.”
Pishdadian said she wants to see Mahallati one day tried for war crimes.
“He has blood on his hands,” she said.
Firouz Daneshgari, who today is a professor of surgery at Case Western Reserve University, said he feels the same way.
He understands the terror experienced by Iranian prisoners. As a young medical student at the University of Tehran, Daneshgari was arrested in the summer of 1981 on suspicion of supporting Khomeini’s opposition.
“They beat me first, and tied me by my hands for 24 hours so I could not feel anything, had no circulation,” he said. The torture that followed included electric shocks, he said.
Daneshgari said he witnessed the deaths of many prisoners. They usually happened at dusk, when firing squads would line up and those remaining behind would count the rifle bursts.
“I will have nightmares again tonight,” he said after sharing his memories.
Leafing through the pages of a thick book documenting the 1988 Iran victims, Daneshgari said half his former classmates were killed — and he feels that Mahallati shares the blame.
Contact Jason Hawk at (440) 329-7122 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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