October 19, 2020
by email & fax
Carmen Twillie Ambar
Office of the President
Oberlin College & Conservatory
t: 440-775-8400 f: 440-775-8937 e: firstname.lastname@example.org
RE: Further information on Mohammad Ja’far Mahallati’s past career as an apologist of crimes against humanity
Dear President Ambar:
I am writing to offer new evidence (accessible via hyperlinks) supplementary to the statement made by Family Members of Murdered Political Prisoners and Former Political Prisoners and submitted in a letter by Kaveh Shahrooz and Lawdan Bazargan on October 8, 2020. That letter pointed out that Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, current Chair of Oberlin Colleges Middle East and North African Studies department, had, as Iran’s Ambassador at the United Nations (UN) from 1987-1989, explicitly denied that the summary executions of thousands of long-term political prisoners in the summer of 1988 in prisons across Iran ever took place, and that he presented untrue information to UN mechanisms to obfuscate them. I note that in an October 9, 2020 statement to Oberlin Review, Mr Mahallati instantly rejected these accusations, claiming that when he was serving at the UN he lacked “actual” and “any” knowledge of “the mass executions of prisoners by the Iranian regime in the summer of that year,” which he today correctly describes as “summary executions,” “horrible acts,” and “crimes against humanity.”
At the outset, I like to note that even prior to the 1988 mass executions of political prisoners, Mr Mahallati, as a representative of “the Iranian regime’s” laws and practices, including its Islamic penal system, should and would have known that what he today calls “summary executions” were in fact envisaged in the letter of his regime’s Islamic criminal laws. He should and would have known that regulations governing the Islamic Revolutionary Courts which imposed the death penalty on suspected supporters of the opposition defied every basic guarantee of due process; that legislated Islamic crimes such as “moharebeh” (being at war with God) or “irtidad” (apostasy), for which these thousands of prisoners were put to death in the summer of 1988, did not fall within the category of the “most serious crimes” for which international law possibly countenances the application of the death penalty; and that since this regime’s inception in 1979 and especially in the early 1980s suspected supporters of the opposition were being executed in their thousands after the most summary of trials.
As far as Mr Mahallati’s responsibility regarding the 1988 mass execution of political prisoners is concerned, in light of the historical record of these executions, his October 9, 2020 rebuttal simply will not do. It is disingenuous of Mr Mahallati to “categorically deny any knowledge and therefore responsibility regarding mass executions in Iran” when actual UN documents pertaining to his service until his resignation in late March 1989 strongly indicate otherwise. It is true that these judicial murders were carried out secretly behind locked doors in prisons from late July to early September 1988 and quite plausible that many government officials, including diplomats, were not apprised of them during the short period that they were taking place. But the allegations that Mr Mahallati must answer are: that he took a key role in obstructing the UN’s investigation of these thousands of summary executions after they took place; that to this end he fed the UN misleading information; that since by November/December 1988 both the families of the executed and key Tehran officials were aware of the summary executions it is scarcely plausible that Mr Mahallati was not similarly aware at the time he was denying to the UN that they had taken place; that later, when Mr Mahallati shifted to acknowledging the executions (February 1989), he maintained his efforts to fend off a UN investigation by spreading untruthful and insulting characterizations of the victims.
The critical point here—absolutely central to this whole issue—is that an investigation by the UN—the principal international governmental organization for promoting human rights—was the only conceivable channel available to the victims and families who were seeking information about the circumstances of the summary execution of their loved ones and of their place of burial. There were, and still are, no mechanisms whatsoever within Iran which could hold any promise of truth to such families. A possible UN investigation was their sole hope. Mr Mahallati was the key figure in that channel, but he failed to pursue the truth, and chose instead to communicate misinformation in order to shut down this vital investigation at any cost.
In his October 9, 2020 rebuttal statement, Mr Mahallati denied “actual” and “any” knowledge of these “horrible acts” and “crimes against humanity.” If he had no knowledge of the matter even after they had taken place, was it not wrong of him, when presented with concrete allegations by UN human rights mechanisms, to deny them outright, and what is more, to attempt to shut them down with misinformation? As ambassador to the UN, it was Mr Mahallati’s duty to investigate and shed light on the growing number of horrifying reports referred to him from late August 1988 onwards by UN mechanisms. For example, as reported in a February 1989 UN document, on November 9, 1988 the UN Special Rapporteur on Summary or Arbitrary Executions S. Amos Wako submitted the following information:
“Since July 1988, a large number of prisoners had been executed in various parts of the country, without trial or with a trial of a summary nature. […]”
“On 28 July 1988, 200 prisoners said to be PMOI sympathizers, were executed in Evin Prison. In Machad, 50 other PMOI sympathizers were executed.”
“On 14, 15 and 16 August 1988, 860 corpses were transferred from Evin Prison to the Behecht Zahra cemetery.”
As UN records show, up until November 29, 1988, neither Mr Mahallati who was in New York nor his colleague Sirus Nasseri who was in Geneva, were even responding to such horrifying reports transmitted to them by Mr Wako as well as by the UN’s Special Representative on Iran, Reynaldo-Galindo Pohl. As noted in Mr Shahrooz and Ms Bazargan’s letter, when Mr Mahallati finally agreed to address this matter in a November 29, 1988 meeting with Mr Pohl, he not only categorically denied the allegations of summary executions, but also sought to cloud the matter with a suggestion that these deaths were somehow connected with the “many killings [that] had in fact occurred on the battlefield, in the context of the war, following the invasion of the Islamic Republic of Iran by the organization called the National Liberation Army (NLA) [the army of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI)].” He tried to discredit all the allegations also by showing Mr Pohl a collection of NLA produced agitprop films, which he claimed to be the kind of “political and propaganda material” that in and of itself discredited “the information provided by that organization to the Special Representative.” But Mr Mahallati would have been well aware that the battlefield killings of NLA soldiers which took place from 25-27 July 1988 just prior to the summary execution of political prisoners was a completely separate event. Also, at this time, it would have been scarcely plausible that Mr Mahallati was not aware that thousands of summary executions have actually taken place in prisons across Iran.
The question of timing is critical to the question of what Mr Mahallati knew, and when. Tehran officials who like Mr Mahallati have also claimed ignorance about the executions while they were being carried out from late July to early September, including Seyyed Ali Khamenei, the President at the time, and Mir-Hossein Moussavi, the Prime Minister, have indicated that they were eventually informed of the executions at the latest in early September 1988. Yet, here we have Mr Mahallati’s assurance that in the entire time that he was actually conversing with UN officials on this matter (from end of November 1988 to end of March 1989) he knew nothing of the executions and received “not a single communication” from Tehran on the matter. Does this mean that the tale that suggested the victims were battlefield casualties was his personal invention and the PMOI agitprop videotape he procured to mislead Mr Pohl was his personal initiative? Or else, does this mean someone else was impersonating Mr Mahallati at the above-noted November 29th encounter with Mr Pohl and also on the two further well-documented occasions on December 8, 1988 and February 28, 1989 when Mr Mahallati made similar attempts to shut down the UN’s investigation of this matter?
Mr Mahallati again went on to offer a similar denial on December 8, 1988 in his oral statement at the ۷۵th meeting of the 43rd session of the UN General Assembly. In this meeting his mission was to prevent the adoption of a UN Resolution condemning his government’s extensive patterns of human rights violations. These included the recent “renewed wave of executions in the period July-September 1988 whereby a large number of persons died because of their political convictions,” which Special Representative Pohl had reported in his October 3, 1988 interim report. In his shrill oral statement, Mr Mahallati continued to suggest that the Special Representative was working on “misinformation provided … by a terrorist group[‘s] … baseless allegations.” He called the Resolution a “political decision” by “certain sponsors” who in order “to make a propagandistic campaign in favour of a handful of foreign elements in Iran,” made “the interim report of the Special Representative … the basis of their obsession.”
As the historical record shows, from late October to early December 1988 thousands of families whose relatives in prison had disappeared for nearly four months since late July 1988 were summoned individually and notified of their loved one’s execution. Once the secret executions had been confirmed to the families, that is from early December 1988 onwards, Tehran officials also began to acknowledge the executions publicly both in the domestic and the international media.
It was at this juncture that, three months later on February 28, 1989, Mr Mahallati was again addressing the UN in a Note verbale (a text representing a formal record of information delivered orally) to the Secretary General. By this time, even though Mr. Mahallati was still attempting to fend off international criticism and scrutiny of those executions, like the Tehran government he represented, he was no longer denying that people “inside prisons” had been executed. A different tactic was deployed this time. The Note was drafted specifically to counter an Amnesty International (AI) briefing of December 13, 1988 which had for the first time documented the scale and scope of the killings and recorded the authorities’ shift of policy from denying the executions to acknowledging them. AI’s briefing presented direct testimonial evidence from families of both groups of executed prisoners, the PMOI and the “secular leftist,” gave more than 300 names of victims concluding that “the real total could amount to thousands,” and recorded the following excerpt from an early December Radio statement made by the then President, Seyyed Ali Khamenei:
“Do you think we should greet with sweets those who have links from inside prison with the hypocrites [term used for members of PMOI] who mounted an armed attack inside the territory of the Islamic Republic? … What should we do to them if that contact is established? They are condemned to death and we will execute them.”
Mr Mahallati’s Note verbale begins by suggesting that both groups of the executed prisoners mentioned in AI’s December 13, 1988 are indefensible, i.e. PMOI prisoners who were executed as “mohareb” (one who is at war with God) as well as secular leftist prisoners who were executed as “mortad” (an apostate). Consistent with Tehran’s policy of circumventing any questions about the executed secular leftist prisoners, the untrue and insulting elaborations that the Note offers on the executions pertains only to PMOI prisoners whom Mr Mahallati’s President had already falsely accused of having had “links from inside prison with the hypocrites.” The Note’s explanation of Tehran’s policy shift from denial to acknowledgment of the executions is textbook doublespeak: “Indeed, authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran have always denied the existence of any political executions, but that does not contradict other subsequent statements which have confirmed that spies and terrorists have been executed.” Mr Mahallati’s argument appears to be that the executions did take place after all, but they were executions of persons who were despicable and not worthy to live and therefore, presumably, not worthy of due process of law either. His note explicitly applies the following terms to the thousands of men and women who were executed after trials that were summary in the extreme: ‘spies,’ ‘terrorists,’ ‘mercenaries,’ ‘assassins,’ ‘criminals,’ and ‘internal traitors during time of war’. This time Mr Mahallati’s tactic was to bury the atrocity in abusive and untrue epithets directed at the victims.
As demonstrated above, Mr Mahallati’s conduct at the UN cannot be excused as the standard equivocations of a professional diplomat. He was positioned between bereaved families, fellow Iranians, and the UN, which represented their sole hope for truth and some measure of justice. It is regrettable to report that the tactics which were deployed by Mr Mahallati at the UN prior to his resignation in March 1989 and which were continued afterwards by other UN ambassadors actually worked, and today 32 years later, that UN investigation has still not taken place.
Kaveh Shahrooz and Lawdan Bazargan, the two people who took the initiative in the letter you received, both lost loved ones in the 1988 mass summary executions. Kaveh Shahrooz’s 28-year-old uncle, Mehrdad Ashtari, was executed as a “mohareb” (one who is at war with God) after serving eight years of a 10-year sentence for speaking in support of the PMOI. Lawdan Bazargan’s 29 year-old-brother, Bijan Bazargan, was executed as a “mortad” (an apostate) after serving six years of a 10-year sentence for saying that he was a Marxist and rejected Islam.
It is regrettable that during the past 32 years Mr Mahallati has not mentioned a single word about what he today describes as “crimes against humanity,” let alone own up to his behavior as an apologist for this “crimes against humanity,” apologize to the victims’ families, and assist them in their quest for truth and justice. It is even more regrettable that in his October 9, 2020 rebuttal statement, not only has Mr Mahallati continued to do the same but, just as he maligned the victims of the original atrocity, he also chose to malign Kaveh Shahrooz, Lawdan Bazargan, and the 624 other signatories, by implying that they are merely “war-lobby protagonists” attacking his “longtime anti-war activism.”
Therefore, in agreement with the 626 signatories of last week’s letter to you, I, too, like to stress that Mr Mahallati’s past career as an apologist for crimes against humanity, and the insults he has offered to its victims and their relatives in no way, shape or form fit in a university setting, much less in a teacher of peacemaking, ethics, forgiveness, and friendship, as proclaimed in his academic resumé.
Deljou Abadi (Ms.)
Director-Iranian Refugees’ Alliance, Inc.
t: 212 260 7460 f: 718 233-9663