I was considerably naive and, yet, diligent, as my own attorney, litigating my civil rights action against the people who had abused my human rights
Mike Wallace is retiring from CBS’ “60 Minutes” at the end of this month and I thought a personal retrospective on my little bit of history with the legendary reporter, who has visited Iran on numerous occasions and has interviewed the late Ayatollah Khomeini, the deposed Shah, as well as Ayatollah Rafsanjani, is called for.
I saw Wallace last at a bookstore in Boston promoting his latest book, Between You and Me, a couple of months ago. At first, he barely recognized me and then, after a deep stare, joked that I had gained weight. As we chatted for a couple of minutes, the long line of people behind me, waiting for their autograph session with Mike, was getting impatient. “Take care kaveh,” he said as we shook hands good bye. It was so nice to see him after so long, at least two years.
Flash back to 2003: Wallace hooked me up with one of his producers who, in turn, introduced me to Morley Safer, for a program on Iran, and that meant a hectic consulting role that involved several visits to the 60 Minutes, dropping by Wallace’s office a couple of times just to say hello.
2002: Mike’s son, Chris, who was with ABC then, wanted to go to Iran for a piece that was eventually aired on “20/20” and Mike put in a nice word for me with Chris that translated another consulting role and some time with Chris in NY and Washington, D.C., both before and after his Iran trip. Chris, who hosts the Fox Sunday News Hour, occasionally replaced Ted Kopple on Nightline and was unhappy being second fiddle to any one (bing Mike’s son). I was surprised how politically apart the father and son were, with Chris a sound conservative and Mike a left of center liberal. No wonder I got along with the elder Wallace better, and politics aside, this had also to do with the fact that whereas I was supposed to accompany Chris to Iran, it coincided with an opportunity to tag along President Khatami in his trip to Central Asia; I remmeber calling my Tehran contacts from a hotel in Ashghabad when Chris was coming up empty handed for high profile interviews in Tehran (he did manage one with Dr. Rowhani at the end). “I told my father without you, it wouldn’t have been possible, but that you are also a pain in the butt,” Chris told me subsequently.
January 1999: Okay, this was, in many ways, the highlight of my connection to Mike, i.e., his appearance at the federal court in Boston to testify as my character witness in a jury trial in my civil rights case against Harvard University, its police department, and a Harvard professor named Roy Mottahedeh. Prior to his testimony, Mike had spent a great deal of time with me on this case, giving a video deposition at his office, reviewing and signing the transcript of the deposition and, before that, writing a letter to the federal judge on my behalf, setting the record straight about some false allegations against me by Mottahedeh, not to mention a breakfast together at Copley Hotel in late 1998, when I updated him on the legal developments.
The next day, the Associated Press wired the headline: Wallace testifies on Scholar’s behalf in Harvard battle. Similar stories were ran by Boston Globe and Boston Herald, both quoting Wallace that “I admire Dr. Afrasiabi…He has been wronged. The canons of Harvard are lined up against a pea shooter…Afrasiabi is innocent enough to think that he can prevail over the resources of Harvard.”
It turned out he was right and I was considerably naive and, yet, diligent, as my own attorney, litigating my civil rights action against the people who had abused my human rights — by framing me with a fictituous crime of extortion and death threats via two of Mottahedeh’s subordinates (who fled the US shortly after being used as patsys). “Don’t worry, you will always be remembered as the man who took Harvard to the US Supreme Court,” Wallace once consoled me on the phone, in March 2003, when I called to inform him that the High Court justices had denied my appeal in a close vote of 5 to 4. But I was seeking justice not a place in history and, sadly, American justice turned out to be just ice, turning a blind eye to my cry for justice for the sake of the much revered institution that is Harvard.
About Wallace’s testimony: first, he was late, a good hour or so, and the judge asked me to call another witness. I called Shobhana Rana, Mottahedeh’s assistant who had made a lot of false claims in her video deposition, which I had evidentiary documents to prove her lies, and yet, despite an attempted subpoena, she was not in court and I immediately asked the judge for a “directed verdict” and the judge refused. I was then in the middle of cross-examining another witness when I felt a certain electrical charge in the room as nearly all the heads in the court room, jam packed with reporters and witnesses and several of my relatives and academic supporters — rolled toward the door. The judge, Michael Harrington, immediately interrupted me and asked that wintess to step down and Wallace to take the stand and be sworn.
Wallace’s testimony lasted nearly three hours and was, in fact, a bit hillarious. Wallace was deliberately disrespectful toward Harvard’s chief counsel, Richard Riley, whom he had met earlier in his office and told Riley, “oh you’re Mr. Riley, I didn’t recognize you.” And then Wallace immediately retorted, “why don’t you call him Dr. Afrasiabi? You call Mottahedeh, Dr. Mottahedeh?” Riley obeyed and then approached Wallace to show him a letter and Wallace shoved his hands away and said, “take your hand, let me see.”
There was a reason for Wallace’s hostility toward Riley. He knew the inside out of my ‘David and Goliath’ battle, and how attorney Riley had deliberately blocked an out of court settlement in order to enrich himself, and had also abused the legal process by lying about discovery issues, etc. A year earlier, Wallace was dismayed that Harvard had first agreed to and then reneged on their in-court consent to settle with me, per the judge’s proposal for monetary compensation and a two-year position at Harvard for me.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Dr. Afrasiabi has been damaged as a result of this,” Wallace told the court, after reading a 1997 letter to the judge which he had written, calling Mottahdeh a liar, for lying to him a few years earlier about my ties to Harvard.
Funny thing: a day earlier, I had subpeonaed Mottahedeh to court and grilled him on the stand for several hours. Wallace directly contradicted everything that Mottahedeh had said, such as his claim that he had never called Wallace to smear me.
“I remmebr talking to him. And I remember Mottahedeh had this nasty, deprecating voice, trying to make me lose whatever respect I had for Dr. Afrasiabi,” said Wallace, adding that after all the correspondence he had received from me about the case, “we have become pen pals.”
I cannot help laughing in my head when I remember the burst of laughter in the court, including from the judge, when Wallace answered a question by Riley about one of my communications to Wallace suggesting a movie about him starring his old friend Kirk Douglas. But Wallace’s own smile had a twinkle of irony in it, since he was the only one in that room who knew that I was not alltogether off the mark and a movie, called Insider about a whistleblower in the tobacco industry, was in the making starring Christopher Plummer playing Wallace. But at that moment, Wallace kept that to himself and confined himself to a small grin.
Three days later, I spoke with Wallace on the phone, this time to inform him that I had been robbed of justice by the judge’s self-reversal on a key evidence that implicated a Harvard defendant on trial in conspiracy against me, i.e., the findings of two hand writing experts matching the detective’s hand writing with that of the so-called “extortionist.” “That is a shame,” Wallace retorted, having seen the faxed letter by the forensic experts, whose testimony would have left no doubt with the jurors that I have been victimized by Harvard police with an Alice in Wonderland crime story concocted in order to silence me. A few days later, when the grueling ten day battle against a horde of Harvard attorneys was over and lost, I called and left a brief message for Wallace. He called me back and advised to “move on.”
I did move on, to the federal appeals court and then the US Supreme Court, as well as to UN’s program on Dialogue Among Civilizations, and Wallace wrote a nice recommendation letter for me to Kofi Annan’s Special Representative, Mr. Giandomenico Picco. That was in 2000, and I limited my communications to Wallace for a while by sending him the UN Chronicle, which occasionally publishes my writings.
Tussle with Boston Globe: after the trial, in light of Boston Globe’s repeated biased coverage of the trial, I filed a law suit against the paper when they denied my request for pinting corrections. Globe’s motion to dismiss the action was denied by a judge and I withdrew the complaint after receiving a call from Wallace, in Fall 1999. He told me that Matt Storrin, the Globe’s managing editor had called him and called said that this “crazy Iranian” had sued us. After explaining the grounds for my action, Wallace suggested that I drop the suit if Globe publishes a retraction, and I complied. Thus, some six months after the trial (!), Boston Globe published a statement on page 2, informing me their reader that a bulk of what they had written about the trial was “incorrect” and I immediately faxed it to Wallace.
Breakfast with President Khatami: That was in September 2000, and Wallace and a few other media heavies such as Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and Christiane Amanpour had a breakfast meeting with President Khatami, prior to Khatami’s press interview at UN Plaza Hotel. Wallace was happy when Khatami told him that he had stayed up the night before to watch his interview with the President of China. Yet, for a mysterious reason, Wallace never showed any interest in interviewing Khatami — perhaps he never thought Khatami has real power, unlike President Ahmadinejad, whom he has expressed interest in interviewing — and could not wait to get out of the room after Khatami finished his press conference, lambasting his own supporters, etc. I followed Wallace through the back stairs to the street and he showed his clear displeasure with Khatami’s statements and shook my hands and said “take care of your family.”
A call from jail: January 1996. “Hey, Afrasiabi, you have a telephone call,” a guad yelled at me. I was in Cambridge County Jail mopping a kitchen floor. It was Wallace, who had been alerted about my situation by a relative. “Kaveh, what is going on?”
“I am framed Mr. Wallace. That is all.”
“I can’t believe it. I thought you were teaching?”
“I was until they came and arrested me at my home a few days ago.”
“Who is they?”
“I didn’t know Harvard police has jurisdiction to arrest some one outside campus,” Wallace reacted. Neither did I, and it would take a couple of years of legal research and depositions and discovery to learn that, indeed, they did not have the authority to even investigate their own make-beleive crime story that, per the police report, had occurred outside Harvard. “Look, I have some friends in Boston Globe. I will send a reporter to look into this.”
That turned out a huge support for me, since the more media scrutiny of the crimes attached to me, the more the whole hypocrisy of that McCarthyite, or rather Kafkasque, nightmare would be exposed, putting my Harvard enemies and their army of supporters in court, on the defensive. Thus, several days later, when my accusers showed up in court and did not identify me as the culprit, my attorney asked for the immediate dismissal of the case and my release. I was released on a bail, but the case lingered on another few months, dismissed at a pre-trial, solely because the same Harvard detective, Richard Mederos, introduced a statement at the eleventh hour claiming that I had confessed to my crime when he took me into his custody. That was yet another huge lie that I subsequentely proved to the federal court, by providing official transcripts of the initial court proceedings when I had flatly denied any wrong doings and had told the court that I had never even heard the name of Mottahedeh’s patsy, Shobhana Rana, let alone meeting her and extorting money from her. That evidence, plus so many others, were the reason why Harvard’s desperate attempt to dismiss my civil rights complaint failed and the case went to jury even though I was my own lawyer (since it cost too much to hire an attorney and the one who I managed to hire on the eve of the trial breached her contract by letting me know 48 hours prior to trail that she was unable to represent me — yet another indication of how Harard ran the Boston court system like a company town).
The letter to Judge Tauros: My initial judge, in my federal case against Harvard, was justice Joseph Tauro, the chief justice of the US District Court, who ended up resigning from my case exactly one hour after the deadline he had set for Harvard — to either produce the documents I had requested about Rana or face judgment. The respected judge chose the indignity of recusing himself after the deadline than the dark cloud of controversy hovering over his head, as the judge who ruled against Harvard, apparently a too risky a proposition for him, or for that matter, any judge in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
But, two cheers for judge Tauro nevertheless for denying Harvard’s motions to dismiss and for summary judgment, after receiving Wallace’s letter which stated clearly that Mottahedeh had lied to him about me and that he held me in high regards as a Middle East scholar, mentioning that he and I had met the literary representative of Mr. Salman Rushdie twice at his office. Wallace wrote the letter at his Summer retreat in Martha’s Vineyard, and had to borrow a typewriter from a neighbor.
The Rushdie story: This goes back to 1990, when I was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard’s Center for Middle East Studies, and first contacted Wallace after publishing a piece in the New York Times. Wallace’s producer, Bob Anderson, called me from Paris wondering if I could help them go to Iran, since their requests had been turned down. I then arranged a meeting between Wallace and Iran’s ambassador to the UN, Dr. Kemal Kharrazi, and subsequently Wallace and Kharrazi became friends.
Initially, I worked with Wallace on a program on Iran and then for a second program on the author of Satanic Verses, Mr. Salman Rushdie. I had strong dislike of Rushdie’s insensitive manipulation of Islam’s sacred texts and initial history for the sake of th hefty 700,000 British Pounds advanced royalty for his book, wherein he uses the insidious mechanisms of dreams for an unbounded attack on Islam’s prophet. Yet, at the same time, I felt ethically bound to stand up for Rusdhie’s authorial right, following a life-long commitment to Gorky’s maxim that he was opposed to one’s views but would fight to death to defend his right to speak his mind.
My superior at Harvard, Mottahedeh, a Bahai, who barely spoke Fasi and was cultivating his ties without publicly disclosing them, as was required by Harvard’s own rules following an ealier scandal rocking the Middle East Center, was unable to stop my involvement with 60 Minutes on this issue and, per Wallace’s letter and in court testimony, resorted to the most unethical conduct of smearing me with Wallace, and subsequently the whole academic world, and forcing me to threaten a law suit against him in late 1995 via an attorney, Kevin Molloy, as well as complaining against Mottahedeh to the ethics committee of Middle East Studies Association in December 1995, a precious couple of weeks prior to being subjected to a retaliatory arrest by Mottahedeh’s protectors at Harvard police and Harvard’s general counsel led by a South African lawyer-turned the chief justice of Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Margaret Marshall. Marshall was, in fact, my first witness at trial and she failed to show up, sufficient cause for me to testify against her a year later, before the Governor’s Judicial Commission holding public hearings at the Massachuesetts Senate on Marshall’s nomination for the judicial post. The papers relayed the next day that I had questioned Marshall’s qualification, for pulling an apartheid-style file on me when she ran Harvard’s general counsel, and for claiming erroneously that her failure to testify was because her motion to quash the subpeona had been granted — no such thing and the records which I showed the reporters clearly showed no decision by the judge, i.e., judge Marshall was in default of a subpeona and I had every right at trial to ask the judge to send the marshals to bring her to court.
“What do you want me to do? Bring a sitting judge here in hand cuffs? Are you crazy? You think I could ever walk in this town again if I did this?” Judge Harrington thundered, almost smacking me in the head, on Day One of the controversial jury trial.
Back to Rushdie issue: Mr. Wallace genuinely liked my efforts to bring the Rushdie controversy to a mutually-satisfactory resolution, and was elated when I informed him one day that the Spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, may be amenable to pardon Rushdie, and let him off the death threat issued by his predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini, if Rushdie apologized and agreed to donate a portion of the proceeds from his book to the victims of anti-Rushdie riots in the Muslim World. That information came to me after intense communication with several important people in Iran, and I was in the middle of that behind the door “private diplomacy” when one day Wallace informed me that he had received a fax and phone calls from Mottahedeh claiming that I was an imposter and had no ties to Harvard University.
That conversation occurred at Wallace’s office and he threw his hands in the air and said, “look Kaveh, I am sorry, it is out of my hands. They have even contacted the higher ups at CBS.” After leaving Wallace’s office, I placed a call to Mottahedeh’s office calling him the worst character assassinator I have met in my life. But, advised by one of Mottahedeh’s friends, professor Ali Banuazizi, not to take legal action, I refrained until 1995, when I heard from a Harvard librarian named John Emerson that Mottahedeh had vilified me with Oxford University, where I had applied for a fellowship, prompting me to have attorney Molloy write a strong letter warning of a defamation law suit if Mottahedeh continued his smear campaign against me. Mottahedhe’s reply came shortly thereafter, through the false arrest by Harvard police on the charges brought by Mottahedeh’s subordinates.
Winding the clock forward to March 2006: After several months of being a part of Harvard’s Managing the Atom Project, I was invited to participate at a symposium at Harvard law school on “Iran and the future of non-proliferation regime,” along with three other speakers from Brookings Institution, Harvad, and MIT. Yet, a day before the talk, I was informed that Mottahedeh and his friends at the Middle East Center have been outraged by this news and were pushing to cancel the event. A couple of days after the well-attended panel, which webcast can still be seen on the website of Harvard law school, I received a letter from the chief of police of Harvard informing me that I would be “subject to arrest and prosecution” if I showed on Harvard campus or “any property belonging to Harvard.” Chief Riley sternly reminded me that a no-trepass order, issued to me the very day I was fully exonerated of the malicious charges, was still in effect, and that meant the end of my participation in the nuclear program at the Kennedy School. Little mattered that I was published by Harvard University Press (book chapter in Islam and Ecology, 2004), that Harvad International Review had just published a piece by me, that earlier, Harvard Theological Review had also published a seminal article by me, and that several professors in the departments of religion and government were using my pubications in their classes. Harvard Crimson would refuse to publish a news story about the irony of how I could one day be a key note speaker at a much-publicized event and the next day banned and subject to arrest.
“Incredible, even by Harvard’s standards,” replied MIT’s famed linguist, Noam Chomsky, when I informed him. “Outrageous,” wrote my dear friend and mentor, historian Howard Zinn. “I am honored to be in company of luminaries such as Chomsky and Zinn,” I recall Wallace said at one point during his in-court testimony. I am honored to know him.