New charges have been leveled against the Iranian-American couple Karan Vafadari and Afarin Nayssari who run Tehran’s Aun Gallery, including attempting to overthrow the Iranian government. The couple has been incarcerated at Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison since being arrested on July 20 of last year, and has been denied access to legal counsel, interrogated extensively, and frequently placed in solitary confinement over a series of charges that human rights organizations have denounced as baseless.

According to Kateh Vafadari, Karan’s sister, a number of charges against the couple that had previously been dropped were recently reinstated and added to by Judge Abolqasem Salavati during a hearing at which Vafadari and Nayssari were not allowed to have their lawyer present. Salavati — whom the Center for Human Rights in Iran describes as “a notoriously hardline judge routinely picked for dual national cases and other politicized cases in which the [Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Organization] and the Judiciary are seeking an unquestioning and harsh ruling” — reinstated earlier charges including espionage, associating with foreign diplomats, and having alcoholic beverages in their home. He also added the more serious charges of “attempting to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran,” “recruiting and signing up spies through foreign embassies,” and “assembly and collusion against national security,” according to Kateh Vafadari. The charges carry a potential penalty of up to 21 years in prison, in addition to fines and the confiscation of their property.

Karan Vafadari and Afarin Nayssari (image via the Center for Human Rights in Iran)

Karan Vafadari and Afarin Nayssari (image via the Center for Human Rights in Iran)

“Karan Vafadari and Afarin Niasari are among the most refined, the most exquisite, the most dignified people I have met during the five years I spent as Italy’s ambassador to Tehran,” Roberto Toscano, the Italian ambassador to Iran from 2003 to 2008, wrote in an open letter calling for the couple’s release. “Their detention is not only despicable because of its blatant injustice, but also because it will work as a further obstacle to the task of integrating Iran in the international community through a policy of dignity and proud independence, and at the same time dialogue and mutual respect.”

News of the couple’s arrest last summer was initially kept quiet as their relatives attempted to negotiate their release, but when talks with authorities broke down in December, the family went public. Some observers see their imprisonment as an attack on Iran’s Zoroastrian community, of which Vafadari is a member (and therefore not subject to the Islamic laws regarding alcohol consumption and mixed gatherings). Others, including Toscano, believe it may be an attempt to repress contemporary art and freedom of expression.

Aun Gallery’s doors have been shut since last summer when, members of the Revolutionary Guards “tore down and destroyed some art pieces, and took some others away with them,” according to Kateh Vafadari. The gallery launched in September 2009 with an exhibition of caligraphic tar paintings by the Iranian artist Einoddin Sadeghzadeh. Since then it had hosted more than 140 exhibitions, with Niasari managing day-to-day operations.

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...