CHRI – Art Gallery Owners Karan Vafadari and Afarin Nayssari Held on Baseless Charges More Than One Year Without Trial
Detained Iranian-American art dealer Karan Vafadari has written a letter from Evin Prison demanding that he and his wife be released for lack of any evidence supporting the espionage charges against them.
“I don’t know anything about the law and I only had a 10th-grade education in Iran, so I will leave my legal defense to my lawyer. But I will say this: all the charges against me and [my wife] Ms. Afarin Nayssari are, without exception, completely false,” Vafadari wrote in his letter addressed to Judge Abolqasem Salavati of Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court.
The letter, signed July 24, 2017, was published online by the couple’s family on August 27.
“It is my belief that judiciary officials arrested us for political and financial reasons, without sufficient investigation or evidence. There is nothing to tie us to any of the charges against us and we have never thought, said or done anything to undermine the national security of the Islamic Republic,” the letter added.
Karan, a member of the minority Zoroastrian faith and an electrical engineering graduate from the U.S., along his wife Afarin, an architect, managed the Aun Gallery in Tehran when they were arrested by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Intelligence Organization on July 20, 2016—ostensibly for serving alcohol in their home and hosting mixed-gender parties.
In March 2017, new charges were brought against them, including attempting to overthrow the Islamic Republic and recruiting spies through foreign embassies.
So far no trial has been held but the couple could face up to 21 years in prison, as well as cash fines, confiscation of their house and other properties.
“Mr. Salavati! Perhaps the interrogators didn’t like Ms. Nayssari’s taste in artists and paintings,” said Vafadari in his letter addressed to the revolutionary judge, pondering the reasons for being arrested.
“Maybe they didn’t like the baggy long black dress she was wearing during interrogation; the one that covered her all the way down to her ankles. Or perhaps society does not like the fact that I consume alcohol, something I have unfortunately been accustomed to since childhood.
“Maybe (the interrogator does not like me) because he told me the worst day of his life was when Imam Khomeini declared that religious minorities no longer have to put special signs on their stores. There are many other maybes but none of them give any reason to call us corrupt, traitors or criminals.”
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.” Although the production and consumption of alcohol is prohibited for Muslims under the Islamic Republic of Iran’s religious laws, religious minorities are given an exception.
Vafadari continued: “After only 20 days of interrogation, one of the interrogators said he had become convinced that we are not spies. The reason is that my wife and I have never had any interest or inclination toward politics. We have not been members of any party, club, organization or society. We have not even followed any online channels, such as on the Telegram network. Before entering prison, we knew no political activists or human rights workers by name. We had no idea the IRGC had a security unity.”
He added: “Mr. Salavati, I have read the Quran several times. I have read Nahj al-Balagha…in which Imam Ali, the first Shia leader, proclaimed there is no difference between a Muslin and a non-Muslim in the eyes of the law. I am certain if your first Shia imam was the judge in our case, he would have only sought the truth and justice, acquitted us, and freed us immediately.”
The letter continued: “Imagine you were not a judge and some people deliberately and willfully wanted to frame you. Wouldn’t your first wish be that someone fair, unbiased and independent would be the judge in your case? I am certain that if I am unjustly convicted under the Divine Justice which you represent on Earth, I will be vindicated in the afterlife…because despite being a Zoroastrian, I have always believed in and respected Islam.”
Vafadari and his wife’s arrest caused much distress within the small Zoroastrian community. The Vafadari family are well-respected for endowing the Firouzgar Hospital to the public.
“You may be aware that I belong to a family that is respected by many Iranians,” the imprisoned Iranian-American noted in his letter to Judge Salavati. “Until the day she died, my late mother, Mehangiz Firouzgar, headed a hospital donated by her father to the people of Iran. My uncle was mercilessly killed by the British to stop him from developing Iran’s domestic power industry.
“Would it be possible for my mother, who gave all her time and energy for the love of Iran and the Iranian people…to raise a child who would betray or commit ugly acts against this great country?”
Vafadari insisted: “Despite the cruel treatment and injustices brought against me and my wife during our arrest and detention, I will never forget my Iranian identity and will always do everything in my power to strive for the glory of my dear country.”
In a public letter by the former Italian Ambassador to Iran, Roberto Toscano, the Ambassador expressed outrage at Vafadari’s and Niasari’s arrest and refuted the authorities’ justification for their detention, saying that “One has to be truly gullible and the easy victim of propaganda” to accept such charges.
The Ambassador continued, “The reason must be a different one…political blackmail toward the US (of which they are also citizens), envy for their success, intimidation toward the Zoroastrian community, desire to grab their properties, [and] repression of contemporary art.”
In December 2016, a member of the Iranian parliament questioned the motives behind the arrest of dual nationals, including Vafadari and Nayssari.
“A young dual-national couple, Karan and Afarin, came to our country but you have to look and see what happens to our prominent artists,” said Hosseinali Deligani, the MP from Shahinshahr, in Isfahan Province, in an open legislative session. “Their consumption of alcohol was filmed and then they were threatened and blackmailed for refusing to cooperate,” he added.