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

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

Iran has sentenced the Iranian-American art dealer Karan Vafadari and his Iranian wife Afarin Neyssari to 27 and 16 years in prison, respectively, according to a letter written by Vafadari and obtained by the Center for Human Rights in Iran. Vafadari was also sentenced to 124 lashes and a fine of nine billion rials (~$243,000). The couple founded Tehran’s Aun Gallery in 2009, which was dedicated to showing work by Iranian contemporary artists.

The dual national couple (Neyssari has permanent residency status in the US) was arrested in July 2016 and charged with attempting to overthrow the Iranian government in April 2017. However, it’s unclear for what charges they were ultimately convicted. According to Vafadari’s letter, they were sentenced by the infamously hardline judge Judge Abolqasem Salavati of the 15th branch of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran.

“The court has granted me the honor of being the first Iranian to be convicted under Article 989 of the Civil Penal Code,” Vafadari wrote in his letter, dated January 21. “It means my wife and me, and every one of you dual national Zoroastrians who returned to your country to invest in the homeland you love are always going to be in danger of losing your assets and being forced to leave the country.” Article 989 of Iran’s Penal Code exempts dual nationals from running for public office and allows local prosecutors to seize and sell their assets. However, according to a lawyer consulted by the Center for Human Rights in Iran, it only applies to those who’ve renounced their Iranian citizenship, which neither Neyssari nor Vafadari has done.

“Unfortunately, my international [art world] activities raised the suspicions of the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps]’s Intelligence Organization,” Vafadari wrote. “Fortunately, the initial, baseless security accusations that led to our arrest were dropped, but our gallery, office, warehouses, and home remained locked and our cars, computers, and documents were confiscated, followed by accusations and interrogations that indicated a deeper plot.”

“It is really problematic that these people become the targets,” Tara Sepehri Far, a researcher in the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch, told Hyperallergic. “You can’t encourage Iranians to come back from abroad and help with reaching out to the world to change Iran’s image, and as soon as they are perceived as connected to the West, then they become targeted by other segments of the system within intelligence and judiciary.”

Neyssari and Vafadari are followers of Zoroastrianism, a pre-Islamic faith whose adherents are recognized by the Iranian constitution but are nevertheless subjected to discrimination and persecution. However, according to Far of Human Rights Watch, their imprisonment, trial, and sentencing have less to do with religious persecution and more to do with their perceived connections to foreign institutions as people who travel in cultural and diplomatic circles both within and outside Iran.

“It is ironic that the people who actually get targeted are not in direct opposition to the system,” Far added. “They are the people who either go back to try to work on something, or try to somehow engage with either the society or the system. But they are perceived as a bigger threat than, for example, someone who is clearly opposing the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

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...