Karan Vafadari and Afarin Niasari.

Family Breaks Silence as Iran Detains Owners of Tehran’s Aun Gallery

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reports that an Iranian-American couple, Karan Vafadari and his wife Afarin Niasari, have been in detention at Tehran’s Evin prison since late July despite no formal charges being filed against them. Together, they run the Aun Gallery in Tehran, which has staged shows with artists such as Nazgol Ansarinia, Mahmoud Bakhshi, and Sahand Hesamiyan. They are being held without charge or access to counsel since their arrest by Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’s (IRGC) Intelligence Organization agents three months ago, according to a letter (addressed to supreme leader and Muslim cleric Ali Khamenei) by Kateh Vafadari, the Washington, DC–based sister of Karan Vafadari. Kateh also said that the detained couple had been subjected to “extortion, property seizure and national security threats” ever since their arrest. She has called for their immediate release, and in the interim authorities have closed the couple’s gallery.

The Vafadari family has visited Karan and Afarin in prison several times in the past three months but had held back from publicizing their case until now, as they hoped it could be resolved. IRGC intelligence agents have been promising that the couple would soon be released but no progress seems to have been made. Then, the family also started receiving anonymous phone threats and demands for money, after which Vafadari’s sister went public with her letter to Iran’s supreme leader.

Kateh Vafadari states in her letter that her sister-in-law, Afarin Niasari, was detained by IRGC agents at Tehran’s airport in late July 2016 as she was about to board a flight to attend a family wedding abroad. She was told by them to call her husband and ask him to come to the airport. When he arrived, he, too, was arrested and both were taken from there to prison. The couple were also brought in handcuffs to their home, where agents took down works of art hanging on walls, smashing some pieces in the yard and confiscating others. Then the couple was taken to their gallery, where, again, some art works were destroyed by the agents and a number of others impounded. Vafadari also addressed this in her letter, writing: “You cannot arrest someone or smash works of art just because you have a different taste. These works of art represent the diverse interests and wishes of different people in the city.”

Karan Vafadari attended Tehran’s prestigious Alborz High School and graduated from New York University with a degree in electronic engineering and management. Karan’s three children live in the United States while Vafadari and Niasari live in Tehran’s Vanak neighborhood and manage their gallery. Though he did not mention Vafadari and Niasari by name, Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said on August 2, 2016 that “two Iranian dual nationals” had been charged with organizing mixed-gender parties for foreign diplomats and their Iranian associates, as well as serving alcohol at their home.

Dolatabadi claimed, “The enemies of the Revolution are engaged in organized corruption and depravity,” and furthermore proposed that “4,000 liters of alcohol” had been found at the couple’s home. By not specifically referring to Vafadari, he also avoided explaining why Vafadari, who is of the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian faith native to Persia and therefore not subject to Islamic laws on alcohol and mixed gatherings, would be punished in this way even if he had possession of such quantities of alcohol. Under Iran’s constitution, Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians “are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.” Kateh Vafadari’s letter touched on this aspect of the situation: “For religious minorities, such as Zoroastrians, there is no difference between an alcoholic or herbal drink. They are both consumed at home. Zoroastrians drink alcohol at mourning ceremonies and various traditional events as well. It is a normal part of life. To conduct an arrest simply for having alcohol at home is a violation of the laws of a multi-religious society and disrespectful of the traditions of others.”

Kateh Vafadari also noted in her letter to Khamenei that her family had received phone calls by several unknown individuals seeking to extort money since the couple’s arrest. The calls started after a member of parliament for the first time publicly mentioned the detained couple by their first name last month. Hosseinali Haji Deligani, the MP from Shahinshahr, said, “A dual-national couple by the names Karan and Afarin have come to Iran. Go see the information about them. Go see what they have done to our country’s artists and celebrities. They filmed alcohol being served from pipes and tried to use it as blackmail. They said they would publish the clip if [the authorities] didn’t cooperate.” The couple’s arrest has caused much distress within the country’s small Zoroastrian community; the family is well respected for endowing the Firouzgar Hospital to the public, as well as for their prominence in the artistic community there.