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    Middle East
     Feb 17, 2005
A letter to America
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

President George W Bush recently sent a message to the Iranian people, promising to support them "as you stand for your own liberty". I would like to take up the promise, since my human and civil rights in America have been seriously trampled on, yet the legal system has turned a blind eye to my cry for justice.

It is a fair request, I assume, that America delivers at home first before trying to "spread liberty around the world", to paraphrase a New York Times headline after Bush's recent inaugural address, otherwise I am afraid the labels of hypocrisy and double standards may stick. Unfortunately, revisiting in my head the sad spectacle of the justice system in America like a horror movie, I am inclined to believe that it's mostly just ice, floating feebly above a glacier of might.

Of might and rights. How can I summarize in a letter the ordeal of a decade-long battle with the mighty Harvard University, some seven years of it in various state and federal courts, all the way up to the US Supreme Court, knowing that I was naive all along to think that there is actually justice in America.

"The cannons of Harvard are lined up against a pea shooter," said one of my supporters in court, veteran CBS correspondent Mike Wallace, adding, "I admire Afrasiabi. I think he is an honorable man, and he is innocent enough to think that he can prevail over the resources of Harvard." That was on day three of a jury trial in the (civil rights) case of Afrasiabi versus Harvard University, et al, in January 1999, when I represented myself against six Harvard attorneys. Some, like my dear friend and mentor, historian Howard Zinn, who testified as my character witness on day one of the 10-day trial, called it a "David and Goliath" battle, and the Boston Globe dubbed it "the Harvard battle".

After my losing the asymmetrical battle, Professor Noam Chomsky wrote, "I am very sorry to hear about the unfairness in court. But I am not surprised. A shameful chapter in American history, and one its most renowned institutions." Chomsky's sentiment was shared by a number of other luminaries who sided with me in my quest for justice, including the famed playwright/filmmaker David Mamet, who was so disgusted by Harvard's mistreatment of me and their brazen manipulation of the court system that he wrote an article for Harper's Magazine, which they censored at the last minute, as one of their editors turned out to be a Harvardite.

Another Harvardite, Allan Dershowitz, who is a law professor there, met me at his office on three occasions per the suggestion of Mamet, his close friend, and once after reviewing the evidence - of false arrest and imprisonment on fabricated charges by Harvard police aimed at silencing my criticisms of a Harvard professor named Roy Mottahedeh, against whom I had complained to the Ethics Committee of Middle East Studies Association and threatened to file a lawsuit because he had maliciously defamed me in the academia - Dershowitz picked up the telephone and called Harvard's general counsel and expressed his concerns about my situation, urging them to remedy their wrongful conduct.
Unfortunately, that was as far as Dershowitz was willing to go, and he reneged on his promise to represent me in the federal appeals court, which denied my appeals two years later, thus forcing me to cast my hopeful stare at the court of last resort, the United States Supreme Court, still confident that justice would prevail at last, that there would be a light at the end of this arduous, and difficult tunnel.

Sour grapes of memory: the honorable chief justice of the US District Court in Massachusetts, Joseph Tauro, preferred to recuse himself from my case exactly one hour after the deadline he had set for Harvard to produce certain documents (about Shobhana Rana, the patsy they had used to cry foul against me and who subsequently failed to appear in court even though named as defendant) or face judgment. I recall when the judge's secretary called and asked for my fax number that particular day, I was brimming with joy, thinking that justice has prevailed over might. Indeed, how innocent and naive of me. But, surely, the US Supreme Court had to be held to higher standards, right?

Initially, when a single justice of the High Court allowed my writ of certiorari and dispatched my appeal to the whole chamber, I thought there was occasion for a small celebration. "You have already made legal history Kaveh," Zinn told me, letting me know that the chances of having my case heard by the nine justices was as good as winning a lottery, adding, however, that he was skeptical they would make a verdict against the "sacred" institution, especially in the volatile post-September 11 climate.

Zinn's premonitions turned out to be on the mark and on March 23, 2003 the court denied my appeal, thus bringing to an unhappy closure my relentless quest for justice which had commenced in early 1996, after the charges, of death threat and extortion, brought against me by two subordinates of Professor Mottahedeh, were dropped. Having suffered the pain of a pre-dawn arrest at my home in January 1996, by Harvard police who trumpeted it as a great triumph in the local media, claiming that "there was serious threat to kill", "it was a case of cloak and dagger", that the "investigation took several months because the suspect had several address and aliases", and so on, without once mentioning that I was a former post-doctoral scholar at Harvard (at the Center for Middle East Studies) or that I was a university professor (at the University of Massachusetts teaching courses on American domestic and foreign policy); little did they, especially the Harvard detectives leading the cause against me, expect that soon they would all stand trial as defendants accused of masterminding a conspiracy to bring fictitious charges against me.

On that particular cold wintry day, they were all broad smiles when they booked me at their headquarters. I would later learn that they did not even have the proper jurisdiction to investigate the "crimes" which per their own police report had transpired in the streets of Cambridge, that they were nothing more than a private mercenary force without the slightest public scrutiny in the service of powers that be.

But at least the Boston Globe got it partially right: the next morning they ran a "news brief" headlined: "Iranian professor charged with extortion". Funny thing, two months later, when I was cleared of all the charges, the Boston Globe, which had published four oped articles by me over the years, demoted me to student, running a brief that read: "Charges against Iranian student dropped." So much for media objectivity. In fact, the subsequent Boston Globe's coverage of the jury trial turned out so biased and erroneous that I was compelled to file a lawsuit against them, and dropped it only after they agreed to write a "correction" about their reports, eg, that the "victim" had identified my photo - six months later. Better late than never I suppose. But no matter how hard I tried, they refused to publish the fact that the federal judge had reversed himself on key evidence, supported by two forensic experts, that a Harvard detective's handwriting matched the handwriting of the alleged "extortionist". That would have been staining the justice system, and Harvard, too much, nothing the ruling establishment, turning the enlightened Commonwealth of Massachusetts in effect into a commonwealth of fear, could possibly tolerate.

It would take a voluminous book to cover all that transpired in this legal bout, and my purpose is not at all to knock down the much-cherished Harvard. How could I? After all, I am published by both Harvard University Press (ie, chapter in Islam and Ecology, 2003) as well as the Harvard Theological Review, this, ironically, despite the fact that since the day I was exonerated I have been banned from Harvard, threatened to be subject to arrest if I ever enter any Harvard property. I was informed of this matter through a letter expressed to me by the chief of police of Harvard University, stating that "after consultation with the general counsel's office" they had decided to ban me - not just from the campus either, since Harvard practically owns half the city of Cambridge.

"Why Am I Banned?" That was the topic of my response in Harvard Crimson, requesting a formal apology instead. There would be none forthcoming, however, and after a failed mediation, when Harvard's attorneys turned a blind eye to my long list of academic, financial and other backlashes as a result of my false arrest, I saw no alternative but to commence legal action in both federal and state courts.

Speaking of backlashes, the list is actually too long to enumerate in detail. Suffice to say that I lost my teaching position, my publisher at Westview sent me a one-liner a week after the arrest informing me that my newly-published book was now "out of stock", and another publisher, University of Texas Press, would similarly inform me that my manuscript, on state and populism in the Middle East, which they had consented to publish after two highly positive reactions by their readers, was rejected.

And I remember attending the annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association in Providence, Rhode Island, shortly thereafter and being shunned by practically all my "colleagues", including the historian, Ervand Abrahamian, whose blurb on the back of my book on Iran's foreign policy read: "A must read for both policymakers and academics alike." Another Iranian academic, who is the president of this association, psychology professor Ali Banu Azizi, was a member of the Ethics Committee and had voted to deny my complaint from full consideration by the committee, a fact denied by him when I took his video deposition in 1998.

And then there was the ordeal of litigating my (defamation and civil rights) cases, involving a few dozen hearings, some 700 briefs and motions, extensive trial preparations, and the deposition of 16 witnesses, including Professor Mottahedeh and his two subordinates (who left the US shortly after), several Harvard police, as well as Mike Wallace, who granted to be on videotape after sending a letter (image below) to my federal judge that read:
Dear Judge Tauro:
I am writing you at the suggestion of Dr Kaveh Afrasiabi. Dr Afrasiabi served as a consultant to me on matters dealing with Iran, beginning in March of 1990. I had called him after reading a letter he had written to the New York Times on the subject of Iran.
After that, he cooperated with me in preparation for a program on author Salman Rushdie, object of a fatwa by the Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini; he also attended two meetings I had with Andrew Wylie, Mr Rushdie's literary agent.
At the time I dealt with him it was my understanding that he was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, so I was brought up short when I heard from Professor Roy Mottahedeh of Harvard that Afrasiabi had never been a post-doctoral fellow at the university. That assertion shook my confidence in Dr Afrasiabi and led me to stop asking for his counsel on things Iranian.
Only later did I learn that Dr Afrasiabi had been in fact a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard. Since that time he has kept me informed of his various scholarly activities and it is apparent to me that he is held in high regard by various Middle Eastern Islamic scholars.

Respectfully Yours,
Mike Wallace
Correspondent, Co-Producer
60 Minutes, CBS
After losing my job, which inevitably contributed to the breakdown of my marriage and turning into an academic pariah, I enrolled as a theology student at Andover-Newton Theological School and as a result was able to write an article on post-modern Christian theology, titled "Communicative Theory and Theology: A Reconsideration" for the Harvard Theological Review, which was reviewed by a Harvard divinity professor as "a major contribution to the theological discussions" on the relevance of Habermasian critical theory to theology. I must confess that it was, and still is, somewhat gratifying that I was able to circumvent the "no trespass" order intellectually, by entering the intellectual domain of Harvard even though I was, and still am, banned from it physically.

At one point, at a pre-trial hearing in 1998, the federal judge proposed a formula to settle the lawsuit. He recommended that Harvard cover all my legal expenses, running into well over US$100,000 by then, and compensate me another $300,000 as well as give me a two-year stipend research position at Harvard in order to regain my academic status. Harvard's attorneys agreed in front of Professor Zinn and some 10 to 12 other academics who had come to court in expression of support for me, and I remember Zinn approaching the judge and asking the judge if I had to give my reply right then and the judge said no, that I could think about it and give my answer in writing, which I did a few days later, agreeing to his rather paltry proposal.

Sadly, Harvard changed its mind and I was told that there would be no monetary compensation or position at Harvard, much to the chagrin of Wallace, who had spared no criticisms of Harvard's mistreatment of me in his in-court testimony. Per the official transcript of Wallace's testimony, he reiterated the content of his letter reproduced above, called Mottahedeh a "pathetic, schizophrenic liar" and urged Harvard to settle with me.

One main reason, it now turns out, why Harvard was disinclined to settle out of court with me was because their general counsel, Margaret Marshall, wife of New York Times columnist Tony Lewis, had been slated for an important judgeship in the Massachusetts supreme judicial court, and she obviously had to be cleared of the slightest wrongdoing. Marshall was in fact the first witness I called on the stands at the opening day of trial and she defaulted the subpoena to testify, a fact I brought to the attention of the commission conducting open hearings about Marshall's subsequent nomination for the chief justice of the same court. In her defense, before the glaring limelight of dozens of cameras in Massachusetts State House, judge Marshall claimed that her motion to "quash the subpoena" had been granted, and that was a lie that I exposed to the local media, when I proved to them that the judge had made no such ruling and that Marshall's failure to testify was contrary to the law.

"What do you want me to do? Send marshals to bring a sitting judge here in handcuffs? You think I could walk in this town if I ever did that?" Judge Harrington thundered at me at the sidebar when I complained that Marshall had defaulted the subpoena to testify. But, that was the judge's least shortcoming, allowing a double standard, and his reversal on the handwriting evidence and several other evidence damaging the defense were rather egregious, in fact so egregious that in my 120 page appeals brief, backed by hundreds of case laws and legal authorities, I was supremely confident that the judge's faulty rulings would be reversed and I would be entitled to a new trial.

Well, it wasn't to be. But at least I got a dose of "fair trial" in the federal court, compared to the state court, led by a Harvard-graduate judge who, per his own admission, sat at two oversight committees at Harvard, and who threw out my case on the day set for jury trial, this after reversing himself on all the evidentiary rulings of a mere nine days earlier. "A judge is entitled to change his mind Mr Afrasiabi," the judge told me sternly when I objected to his sudden turnabout after he had given us instructions on how to conduct the jury selection (with the pool of jurors waiting in the next room). This miscarriage of justice called for a complaint to the Judicial Conduct Commission, since I was sure they would agree with me that due to the conflict of interests the judge should have recused himself from the case; in fact, I was so upset by this injustice that I placed an announcement in the main section of the New York Times announcing my complaint against Judge Hillar B Zobel to the said commission. And I sent a complementary copy of the paper to the judge for his "personal record".

A final note, and that is, I hope that this letter serves to shed a little more light on the sad state of civil rights in America today by recounting a bitter experience of academic intolerance and police repression that pre-dated September 11 by a few years and, hopefully, draws us closer to the need to be on guard in protecting our cherished human rights everywhere.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and "Iran's Foreign Policy Since 9/11", Brown's Journal of World Affairs, co-authored with former deputy foreign minister Abbas Maleki, No 2, 2003, and contributor to Mediterannean Quarterly. He teaches political science at Tehran University. He is the founder of a United Nations-related non-governmental organization, Global Interfaith Peace, and has been a consultant to both ABC News and CBS News, both of them in the past couple of years.

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