Dr. Mohammad Maleki: From Educator to Freedom Fighter


Dr. Mohammad Maleki, one of the most enduring and noteworthy figures standing in opposition to the Iranian regime, continues to directly challenge the country’s rulers even at the age of 80.

After the Islamic Revolution, Maleki was the first dean of the University of Tehran. Having been a member of the national resistance movement after the 1953 coup, he was also active in the student movement while pursuing his veterinary studies at the University of Tehran. At the advent of the revolution in 1979, he had a significant role in the University’s professors’ strike. He resigned in response to the Cultural Revolution, however, and went on to openly criticize it. This led to his arrest and death sentence, which was later commuted to imprisonment. After his release, he was arrested again in 2000 and 2009, becoming Iran’s oldest political prisoner in the process.

Mohammad Maleki has been a member of several groups and has never limited himself to a particular organization. Prior to the revolution, he was a member of groups and parties such as the National Youth Organization of Shemiran, the Proletariat and Third Force Party, the National Resistance Movement, and the Iranian Society in Defense of Freedom and Human Rights. Since the revolution, he has been a part of the Council of the Religious-Nationalist Coalition, the National Peace Council, and the Council of National Unity for Democracy and Human Rights. Maleki clearly and courageously expresses his opinions in open letters, even asking for the resignation of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in one published in November 2012.


Mohammad Maleki was born on July 11, 1933 in the town of Tajrish, now part of Tehran. [1] He is married to Qodsi Mir-Moez, with whom he has four children: Maryam, Mogeh, Abuzar, and Ammar. [2] The towns of Tajrish and Shemiran housed two very different sets of residents during Maleki’s childhood. While some were farmers, gardeners, manual laborers, or owned small businesses, others were ministers, lawyers, ambassadors, and financiers who lived there for its pleasant climate. Maleki’s family fell into the first group; his father, who had a small pastry shop, was known as Mash Hossein the Confectioner. It was during Maleki’s studies at the Shahpour School in Tajrish that he was confronted with the local class divide, which partially drove him to pursue his political and social activism.[3]

The post-World War II emergence of the movement to nationalize Iran’s oil industry pushed Maleki toward greater political activism. In 1950, Maleki, who supported Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, founded the National Youth Organization of Shemiran in order to fight for independence, freedom, and equality.[4] He later joined the Toilers Party of the People of Iran, but sided with Khalil Maleki and others (known as the “Third Force”) and diverged from the party.[5] After the August 19, 1953 coup against Mosaddegh, he started working with the Shemiran branch of the National Resistance Movement.

In 1956, Maleki was accepted to the University of Tehran’s veterinary program and became an active figure in the student movement. In 1960, he became a member of the Central Committee of University of Tehran students in the second National Front and was incarcerated for three months in Ghezel Ghal’e prison.[6] He received his doctorate in Health and Foodservice in 1961 and became a member of the university faculty. [7] In the years that followed, the University of Tehran Mosque, Hedayat Mosque, and Hemmat Mosque in Tajrish became the main bases for his political and social activism. In 1977, Maleki founded the Iranian Society in Defense of Freedom and Human Rights alongside Mehdi Bazargan, Karim Sanjabi, Abdolkarim Lahiji, and several others. [8]

During the 1979 revolution, Maleki was one of the professors who stood against the Shah’s regime. He had a crucial role in the 25-day strike by University of Tehran professors from December 20, 1978 to January 13, 1979. [9] After the revolution, the Revolutionary Council appointed him dean of the university. On the hardships of managing the University of Tehran at that time, Maleki says: “Those were difficult days. Several tanks were positioned at the university, and a red flag was flying from the Technical Faculty building. The Faculty of Science building was the domain of the Mojahedin-e Khalgh. The mosque was under the control of the komiteh, who would search houses, gather guns, and bring them there. We were put in charge in these circumstances, and we tried to return the university to a normal state.”[10]

Even under these circumstances, Maleki emphasized the independence of the university and its management by academics. Maleki created several councils, including representatives chosen from professors, students, and staff in order to make the university’s management and policymaking as democratic as possible. He even resigned after the university council was elected, so that he could be reinstated through election by the faculty rather than appointment.[11] In that era, Iranian universities suffered from a great deal of instability, and conflicts between political groups had become routine on campuses. The Islamic Republican Party, which had gained control of revolutionary organizations, was concerned that it did not have enough support among the student body. Finally, the Revolutionary Council decided to close down all universities. The goal was said to be the “Cultural Revolution," which in reality became a pretext to fire and expel dissident professors and students. In protest against the Cultural Revolution and the closing of universities, Mohammad Maleki resigned.[12]

A year later, Maleki wrote an article titled “Cultural Revolution, or Cultural Coup?” He was arrested in June 1981 for his opposition to the Cultural Revolution and his criticism. Though twice sentenced to execution, his sentence was eventually commuted to 10 years in prison.[13] During his time in prison, he was severely tortured, including being hung by his arms or lashed on the foot with cables. In one occasion, the cable hit one eye and caused him to lose sight in it. After 20 years, his vision partially returned with surgery and the use of special lenses.[14] In July 1986, he was released on parole after serving half of his sentence but remained under close surveillance by the security forces.[15] While in prison, Maleki was forced to retire from the University of Tehran. He started teaching at Azad University for a short time, but he was subsequently banned from teaching there due to the dean’s opposition.

After Khatami’s victory in the 1997 presidential election and the formation of the Council of Nationalist and Religious Forces, Maleki started working with the council. This cooperation lasted until 2004. After the mass arrest of Nationalist-Religious Coalition members during a meeting at political activist Mohammad Bastenegar’s home in February 2001, Maleki spent six months in solitary confinement in Eshrat-Abad prison.[16] He was then tried in a closed court and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment, although this sentence was never carried out.[17] Even after solitary confinement, Maleki continued his bold advocacy of human rights and civil liberties. He has even directly addressed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on several occasions – an act which has severe consequences in Iran.

In 2009, Mohammad Maleki co-founded the Council of National Unity for Democracy and Human Rights alongside Davoud Hermidas Bavand, Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, and Koroush Zaim. This council’s activities were stopped after several members were arrested.[18] Maleki did not support any candidate in the controversial presidential elections of 2009, but he was arrested by the security forces in their aftermath. [19] He spent 191 days in prison, all while suffering from prostate cancer, diabetes, and heart complications. At 76 years of age, he became the oldest political prisoner in Iran and was hospitalized several times for his illnesses.[20]


Mohammad Maleki is one of the most venerated activists in Iran and is also known as a symbol of efforts to establish academic freedom and independence for universities. As the first dean of the University of Tehran, Maleki had tried to put a council of professors, students, and staff in charge of managing the university. Decades later, on the 60th anniversary of Student Day (December 7, 2013), he told Iranian students: “After more than 30 years, universities must reclaim their independence with the help of academics. The banner of liberty must fly over the university trenches. Students and scholars must have the right to choose university officials and let them manage the universities.  Universities must once again become the pioneers of social change. Students must form their organizations without intervention from the authorities, and the 60th anniversary of Student Day must be more glorious than ever. The demands of students and other groups that asked for the independence of universities and the freedom of political prisoners in the recent elections must be met. The dark times of repression, violations of human rights, injustice, and cruelty must end through the resistance and actions of students. Dear students: use the opportunity presented by Student Day and unite in demanding the independence of universities. This year’s Student Day anniversary must be a movement towards the independence of universities and the formation of independent student organizations.”[21]

Criticizing the Cultural Revolution, he believes that both the Shah’s regime and the Islamic Republic were afraid of universities. According to Maleki: “Under the previous regime, the university was compared to an infected tumor that has to be cut out. Under this regime, Ayatollah Khomeini says that whatever misery we have stems from universities. Due to the partial independence of the university under the previous regime, the Shah didn’t dare close the universities down. After the revolution, however, Khomeini couldn’t tolerate an independent university for even a few months. He not only occupied it but closed it off from professors and students. He feared the universities being managed by a cooperative council of professors, students, and staff, a council which managed the university independently. God only knows what damage the Cultural Revolution did to universities and academics.”[22]

Maleki believes the current ruling regime of Iran is non-democratic. He believes that a free referendum must be held in Iran in order to determine the type of government the people want. In 2005, Maleki, along with Mehrangiz Kar, Mohsen Sazegara, Naser Zarafshan, and Ali Afshari, released a statement asking for a referendum on the Constitution.[23] In a piece called “The Only Path to Freedom” he wrote: “Why, after 26 years [since the 1979 referendum], does a regime which claims to have the support of the people not allow a generation that had nothing to do with choosing the type of government, who had it chosen for them by their parents, to take control of their own destiny and choose their desired government in a free election with the participation of political parties and a free press? If you do not do this on your own, rest assured that the tides of history will do to you what they did to other dictators.” [24]

Mohammad Maleki is also one of the pioneers of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy. In 2012, Maleki and figures such as Babak Ahmadi, Ahmad Sadr Haj Seyedjavadi, Mohammad Nourizad, and Mohammad-Ali Amooyi directly addressed the Iranian authorities who they believed were fueling the fire of war under the pretense of defending nuclear rights. The group wrote: “We want peace and friendship, not war and violence. We think of war as misery, not a blessing. By starting the Campaign for Peace and Democracy, and by showing our contempt for violence and massacres, we want to address our rulers and tell them to stop the provocations and violent acts. These acts have led to heavy sanctions on our nation and become excuses for passing three resolutions against our people, causing them to put more pressure on us each time. We ask Iranian rulers to thwart any excuse for war so that warmongers will lose hope. We want to tell the world that peace, freedom, and human rights are our indisputable rights.”[25]

Maleki has also recently criticized some of the actions that took place during the revolution. In an unprecedented letter criticizing the violence that took place early in the revolution and the slogans that incited it, he wrote: “Khomeini arrived in Iran with a backpack full of beautiful words. Most of them were the people’s demands. Then he deceived a nation with promises, or khod’e (ruses) as he called them, and built the foundation of lie and deceit. We should think logically about why we got here.”[26] He also criticized the occupation of the American Embassy and hostage-taking, calling it an ugly and evil act and criticizing the political groups of the time for supporting it. Maleki also says it was wrong to continue the Iran-Iraq war after the recapture of Khoramshahr: “After the liberation of Khoramshahr, there were many domestic and foreign efforts to end the war. Those who would profit from the continuation of the war, however, changed a defensive war into an offensive one, advanced into Iraqi soil, and did all they could to make the war continue for eight years. This left hundreds of thousands of martyrs, wounded, and disabled. As Hashemi Rafsanjani has said, it caused a trillion dollars in damages to our country.”[27]


Maleki has often been praised by youth, academics, and human rights organizations as a significant political and social activist. In 2013, he was declared the winner of the Human Rights Activist Award by the Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran. This award was presented to Maleki in recognition of his defense of the Iranian people’s rights. Previous honorees included Abbas-Amir Entezam, Taghi Rahmani, Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, and Ezzatollah Sahabi.[28]

In June 2011, Maleki was chosen as Model Citizen of the Month by Shahrvandyar, a non-governmental and non-profit organization. According to the organization, the reason for this choice was: “Since the beginning of the revolution, Maleki has never kept silent about the injustices of the regime’s judiciary towards the opposition, critics, and especially scholars. He has raised his voice under every circumstance. His presence at every gathering and civic campaign is the proof of this statement. For him, it doesn’t matter how ideologically close he feels to the people; [what matters is] that their rights as citizens need defending. He has always been aware and committed to his duties as a citizen. Despite all the arrests, ban on teaching, threats, and many ailments, he has never stayed quiet and never will. He knows no limit for defending citizens’ rights, and these are Dr. Maleki’s virtues.” [29]

 Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at the University of Tehran with reformist links, has written a book about him titled Dr. Mohammad Maleki: A Professor for All Seasons. Zibakalam explained his reasons for writing the book: “Dr. Maleki was a veterinary professor at the University of Tehran, and he had a significant role in the professors’ strike during the Islamic Revolution. I took part in the strike as well. After that, a deep emotional connection was formed between us. Although, from a certain perspective, this book might not have any political context, from another point of view, it could be considered a very political book. This is because Dr. Maleki is a political and liberal figure who has gone through many hardships for his views and activism.” [30]

Apart from his political and social activities, Maleki has also had many scientific achievements as a professor. He is the founder and chairman of the first research center for the Iranian food industry; the inventor and builder of a cream pasteurizer for household use; translator and compiler of the book “Microbiology of Food”; and has published over 20 scientific articles in international and domestic journals. One of his most important research efforts was a decade-long project on the connection between food preservatives and cancer. He knowingly experimented and worked with materials such as sodium benzene (which is a carcinogen) for his research, which led to his being diagnosed with cancer. The results of his research were presented at the Sharif Industrial University Chemistry Conference and published as the featured paper.[31]

Where is he now?

Mohammad Maleki, one of the most enduring and noteworthy figures standing in opposition to the Iranian regime, continues to directly challenge the country’s rulers even at the age of 80.  After being released from his latest arrest in 2009, he was initially accused of moharebeh (warring against God), prompting an outcry from international human rights groups and public pressure. He was sentenced to one year in prison, although the sentence has not been carried out. He is suffering from several illnesses, including prostate cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. In May 2010, he suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized.[32] In January 2012, he was summoned to prison due to his letters and criticisms. This summons was met with objections from the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint program of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT). They released an immediate statement: “The Observatory condemns the judicial harassment of Dr. Mohammad Maleki, since it seems to merely aim at sanctioning his human rights activities, and expresses its deep concern about the ongoing attempts to hinder the peaceful activities of human rights defenders in Iran.” [33]

Heavy pressure has not stopped Maleki. In 2011, he wrote an open letter to Ahmad Shaheed, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Violations in Iran. In it, he declared he was prepared to testify on human rights violations in Iran: “I am a frail and sick 78-year-old man, but I am ready to tolerate any sentence, because my goal is (and has always been) to fight the injustice and cruelty of the rulers and authorities of the regime in Iran. I do not fear any torment and only depend on God and the people. I wish to meet you and tell you the truth about the last three decades in Iran and the injustice this nation has suffered.”[34]

Maleki has also spoken out against the rise of executions in Iran. In 2013, he founded the Campaign to Abolish the Death Penalty, along with figures such as Simin Behbahani, Babak Ahmadi, and Fariborz Raees-Dana.[35]

In 2012, Maleki wrote an open letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Islamic Republic, in which he asked for his resignation and called him responsible for the chaotic conditions in the country: “Right now, people find you responsible for all their misery. You were the one who denied all their problems instead of finding a solution for them. You were the one who called Iran the freest country in the world. You were the one whose bad and illogical decisions allowed foreign countries to sanction us and make our people’s lives more miserable. You were the one whose bad policies made the world confront Iran. You were the one who gave a green light to your agents inside and outside the country to commit terrorist acts and spill the blood of freethinking Iranians. As the former president and the current Supreme Leader, you are responsible for the massacre of tens of thousands of people in the 1980s and the murder of all the Hodas, Halehs, Nedas, Sabas, and Sattars.”*[36]

In January 2014, Maleki wrote an open letter to Hassan Rouhani, the current president of Iran. In the letter, he disclosed the harassment his family had endured: “I have thus far endured the abuses and harms to which my family and I were subjected without openly discussing them. But now my patience has expired. I ask the government: What did my family do wrong? Why are they dragged into this, if your problem is with me?”[37] Despite this pressure, Maleki continues to speak out for freedom and justice.


* Hoda Saber, an imprisoned journalist who died in 2011 from a heart attack while on hunger strike; Haleh Sahabi, who was beaten by security forces and died at her father (opposition figure Ezzatollah Sahabi)'s funeral in 2011; Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot dead during the 2009 election protests; Sattar Beheshti, a blogger who died while in police custody in 2012



[1] http://shahrvand-yar.com/media/1085

[2] Unpublished Memoirs of Dr. Mohammad Maleki

[3] https://www.facebook.com/Dr.Mohamad.Maleki/info

[4] http://www.roozonline.com/persian/news/newsitem/archive/2013/december/04/article/-fbb21cad68.html

[5] https://www.facebook.com/Dr.Mohamad.Maleki/info

[6] http://www.roozonline.com/persian/news/newsitem/article/-992b8a2ac1.html

[7] http://www.loghatnaameh.org/dehkhodaworddetail-8089234d796041bb8661fcd297c64374-fa.html

[8] http://bit.ly/1onAy0h

[9] https://www.facebook.com/Dr.Mohamad.Maleki/info

[10] http://www.mghaed.com/lawh/interviews/int.maleki.htm

[11] http://www.mghaed.com/lawh/interviews/int.maleki.htm

[12] http://www.mghaed.com/lawh/interviews/int.maleki.htm

[13] Unpublished Memoirs of Dr. Mohammad Maleki

[14] Unpublished Memoirs of Dr. Mohammad Maleki

[15] https://www.facebook.com/Dr.Mohamad.Maleki/info

[16] http://www.rahesabz.net/story/18894/

[17] https://www.facebook.com/Dr.Mohamad.Maleki/info

[18] http://ettelaat.net/09-maj/news.asp?id=37754

[19] http://www.bbc.co.uk/persian/iran/2009/08/090822_bd_maleki_detained.shtml

[20] http://www.radiofarda.com/content/F8_FREED_FROM_JAIL/1971788.html

[21] http://www.roozonline.com/persian/news/newsitem/article/-fbb21cad68.html

[22] http://www.roozonline.com/persian/news/newsitem/article/-fbb21cad68.html

[23] http://www.radiofarda.mobi/a/329681.html

[24] http://www.roozonline.com/persian/news/newsitem/article/-c9725e249c.html

[25] http://www.kaleme.com/1391/06/27/klm-112797/

[26] http://news.gooya.com/politics/archives/2014/02/175464.php

[27] http://news.gooya.com/politics/archives/2014/02/175464.php

[28] http://www.humanrights-ir.org/php/view.php?objnr=1022

[29] http://shahrvand-yar.com/media/1085

[30] http://www.rahesabz.net/story/77537/

[31] Unpublished Memoirs of Dr. Mohammad Maleki

[32] http://www.kaleme.com/1389/03/09/klm-21098/

[33] http://bit.ly/1onAy0h

[34] http://www.roozonline.com/persian/news/newsitem/article/-1bc566b76a.html

[35] http://melimazhabi.com/?p=55494

[36] http://news.gooya.com/politics/archives/2012/11/151061.php

[37] http://www.bbc.co.uk/persian/iran/2014/02/140205_l39_mohammad_maleki_intelligence_ministry.shtml



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