Karan Vafadari and Afarin Neyssari. Photo: The Center for Human Rights in Iran.

Iran Sentences Tehran Gallery Owners to Twenty-Seven and Sixteen Years in Prison

The Iranian American dealer Karan Vafadari and his Iranian wife, Afarin Neyssari, prominent figures in Tehran’s arts community, have been sentenced to prison for being Zoroastrians, members of a pre-Islamic ancient religion that is supposed to be protected under the Iranian Constitution. Vafadari was given a twenty-seven-year prison sentence and will receive 124 lashes. Neyssari was given sixteen years.

The couple owned the now defunct Aun Gallery in Tehran, which was shut down by the authorities after Vafadari and Neyssari were arrested by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Organization at Tehran’s airport on July 20, 2016. After they were detained, Vafadari and Neyssari were taken to their home and gallery, where their property was destroyed and their assets confiscated.

Since their sentencing has yet to be reported in Iran, the crimes they were found guilty of have not yet been officially revealed. They were originally accused of serving alcohol in their home, hosting mixed-gender gatherings, and espionage. According to a letter obtained from Evin Prison in Tehran by the Center for Human Rights in Iran, Vafadari has denounced the “unjust and tyrannical” punishment he and his wife received for being Zoroastrian and a dual national.

Dated January 21, 2018, the letter states that Vafadari and his wife were sentenced at a Revolutionary Court under Article 989 of the Civil Penal Code, which does not recognize dual citizenships obtained after the year 1901. “Being a dual national is no longer a source of pride but a liability that could lead to your prosecution under the obsolete Article 989,” Vafadari wrote. However, Iranian attorney Mahmoud Alizadeh Tabatabaee told the Center for Human Rights in Iran that that Article 989 should only apply to individuals who have renounced their Iranian nationality, which Vafadari and Neyssari did not do.

According to Vafadari, Judge Abolqasem Salavati, who is notorious for issuing harsh sentences, ordered him to serve a year and a half in prison, receive seventy-four lashes, and pay $38,000 for keeping alcohol in his home. He also added another three years and a $162,000 fine for accepting alcohol as a gift from foreign friends. Then an additional fifteen years in prison was added for hosting parties. Since drinking alcohol and holding mixed-gender gatherings are traditional practices of the Zoroastrian religion, Vafadari urged fellow Zoroastrians to be careful.

The convictions of Vafadari and Neyssari mark the latest case of Iran imprisoning dual nationals after the 2015 nuclear deal. The country could be planning to use cases where dual nationals are given harsh punishments as a bargaining chip in negotiations to secure the release of Iranian prisoners in the United States. In a statement, the US State Department said they are aware of the situation and stated, “We call for the immediate release of all US citizens unjustly detained and missing in Iran. We continue to raise the cases of US citizens unjustly detained and missing in Iran in our engagements with the Iranian government.”