After months of incarceration, the owners of Tehran’s Aun Gallery, Iranian-American Karan Vafadari and his wife Afarin Niasari, were formally charged with attempting to overthrow the government, as well as a number of other crimes, including having alcoholic beverages at their home, associating with foreign diplomats, conspiring against national security, and espionage—all brought forth at a preliminary hearing last month.
According to Vafadari’s Washington, DC–based sister, Kateh, who has been chronicling the case on her blog, “Free Karan and Afarin,” the couple had been detained at Evin prison since their arrest in July and were denied legal counsel, forced to endure extensive interrogations, and held for long periods in solitary confinement.
The respected members of the artistic community were arrested by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Organization at Tehran’s airport on July 20, 2016. They were then taken to their home and gallery where their artworks and other property were destroyed and seized by the state. Their family members originally kept the incident private, hoping it would be resolved, but went public after receiving numerous calls demanding money.
Among the charges that Vafadari and Niasari were originally accused of are serving alcohol in their home and organizing mixed-gender parties for diplomats—even though Vafadari is Zoroastrian, and therefore is not subject to Islamic laws on alcohol and mixed gatherings. These charges were later dropped by the prosecutor due to a lack of evidence but were reinstated by Judge Abolqasem Salavati—a magistrate known for delivering harsh rulings in dual-national and other politicized cases.
“All charges against Karan and Afarin are baseless,” Kateh said. “Their arrest and detention is a blow to religious freedom. It is an attack on citizens’ private lives. It is in the opposite direction of Iran’s right to self-determination and its road to national independence.” In an appeal to the public for help, Kateh is asking people to stand up for civil liberties, artistic freedom, and minority rights by writing letters to Iran’s Permanent Mission to the UN and to Iran’s Head of the Judiciary demanding Vafadari and Niasari’s release.
In a public letter, the former Italian Ambassador to Iran, Roberto Toscano, writes: “One has to be truly gullible and the easy victim of propaganda in order to believe that they were detained because they were offering alcoholic drinks to their guests—especially in a capital where most of allegedly pious officials are notoriously not averse to drink.”
He continued, “The reason must be a different one. . .political blackmail toward the US, envy for their success, intimidation toward the Zoroastrian community, desire to grab their properties, [and] repression of contemporary art.”