Relatives of political prisoners executed in Iran in 1988 insist that Oberlin College must expel a former Iranian UN envoy who covered up the mass killings.

A statement released by “relatives of the victims of Iran's 1988 prison massacres, members of the Iranian-American community, Oberlin College students and alumni, and concerned citizens of Ohio” on February 6 demanded that Mr. Mohammad Jafar Mahallati be removed from his post immediately for his role as an accomplice in the 1988 prison massacre.

Mahallati, a former ambassador to the United Nations and current professor of religion at Oberlin College, maintains that he was unaware of the executions despite Amnesty International’s numerous urgent notices to Iran calling for an end to the killings which were widely reported by the media. Protests were held at the time and even an Iranian, Mehradad Imen resorted to self-immolation outside the UN headquarters in September 1988 to draw attention to the wave of executions.

“I was in New York the entire summer of 1988, focusing on peace-making between Iran and Iraq, and I did not receive any briefing regarding executions,” Mahallati wrote in a statement to Oberlin Review in October 2021.

Amnesty International in a new report has named Mahallati as one of the key officials involved in covering up the killings and said that as ambassador, he repeatedly dismissed detailed reports about mass executions in 1988 and 1989, described them as “false claims and fake evidence by terrorist groups”, mispresented the executions as “battlefield killings”, and submitted films and other documents to the UN to support the false claims on behalf of the Iranian government.

Jafar Mahallati - Undated photo

The executions were carried out based on a fatwa by Iran's then-supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, against the MEK which carried out a wave of bombings in Iran and struck an alliance with Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 war. “Showing mercy to those who take up arms against the Islamic government is being naïve,” Khomeini said in his fatwa.

Most of victims were linked to the MEK but there were also others with links to leftist and secular groups such as Fadaiyan Khalq Organization (FKO) and Tudeh Party as well as some Kurdish groups, such as Komala and Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran.

The exact number of prisoners executed during the purge of prisoners is not known but according to Amnesty International, the Iranian authorities "forcibly disappeared" and "extrajudicially executed" around 5,000 between July and September 1988.

The group of relatives started a campaign in 2020 against Mahallati and since then have three times held rallies at Oberlin College and protests in San Francisco, Los Angles, London, Berlin to pressure Oberlin College to terminate Mahallati's employment.

“Given his position as ambassador, media reports, and Amnesty’s campaign, it is impossible that Mahallati was unaware of these events unless he lived in a cave, which would otherwise demonstrate gross negligence of his duty as an ambassador,” the statement said.

The group has also accused Mahallati of making anti-Semitic and anti-Baha’i. comments in the 1980s.

“We also condemn the college for continually defending a known human rights abuser and failing to meet with the victims' families, look at their evidence and listen to their stories,” the statement said.

Oberlin college initiated its own process in 2021 to determine the validity of accusations against Mahallati including allegations of antisemitism. The college said it “could find no evidence to corroborate the allegations against Professor Mahallati, including that he had specific knowledge of the murders taking place in Iran” and allowed Mahallati to continue teaching.

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