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)

In a letter smuggled out of Tehran’s infamous Evin Prison last month, the Iranian-American art dealer Karan Vafadari outlined the charges he was convicted of and pleaded for international pressure to secure his and his wife’s release.

The letter — dated January 20, posted on his sister’s blog earlier this month, and translated in part by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) — explained that Vafadari was convicted of “collusion in plots against national security,” “storing smuggled foreign alcohol,” “possessing my father’s opium pipe,” and “having 124 ‘inappropriate’ CDs,” six packs of playing cards, and marijuana.

“Those acts are indeed illegal under Iranian penal code, but it seems that authorities have used whatever charge they could find to increase Karan’s prison sentence,” Tara Sepehri Far, a researcher in the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Hyperallergic. “In the past, when authorities have failed to sentence dissidents on political charges, they have used (or at least threatened to) similar charges to keep them behind bars.”

Last month, Vafadari was sentenced by the notoriously hardline Revolutionary Court Judge Abolqasem Salavati to 27 years in prison, 124 lashes, and a fine equivalent to about $243,000. Vafadari, a dual national of Iran and the US, is a member of the Zoroastrian religious minority, which is ostensibly recognized and protected in Iran, but faces discrimination and persecution.

“As innocents, we naively believed that keeping silent and avoiding interviews with the news media could provide an opportunity to resolve this issue in court, particularly after the judicial officials in Evin Prison rejected the initial espionage charges,” Vafadari wrote. “But Judge Salavati’s ruling, which everyone believes was dictated by the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps], destroyed any illusions of fairness, justice, rule of law or autonomy. It’s now clear that without an active intervention, there’s no chance I will be freed in the near future or perhaps ever. ”

Vafadari’s wife, Afarin Neyssari — with whom he founded Tehran’s Aun Gallery — was sentenced to 16 years in prison and 74 lashes. Though the charges against her are not entirely known, according to Vafadari’s letter one of the things she was convicted of was “presenting and selling works of art against Islamic values.” He added: “Those who have visited her gallery know this accusation is not true.”

According to Vafadari’s son, Cyrus Vafadari, bail for his father has been set at 100 billion tomans (~$27 million) and for Neyssari at 50 billion tomans (~$13.5 million). Cyrus Vafadari told CHRI that the family managed to raise the bail for Neyssari, but that Judge Salavati refused it, saying: “If I wanted her free, I wouldn’t have set [the bail] so high.”

Vafadari is one of at least a dozen dual nationals currently imprisoned in Iran; Neyssari is Iranian, but has permanent resident status in the US. His letter states: “I don’t think we will be justly treated unless there is greater and more effective international pressure.” A petition launched in April 2017 by his sister Kateh Vafadari had racked up nearly 500 signatures as of this writing.

While public awareness initiatives and press coverage are essential in such situations, they must work in tandem with official diplomatic efforts. “You need the public campaign to keep them in the news and to pressure the authorities (both Iranian and American),” Far of HRW noted, “but you also need a channel of communication between diplomats. “

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...