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  • Jul 22, 2018

Imprisoned Iranian Gallerists Released on Bail

Aun Gallery owners Karan Vafadari and Afarin Neyssari, who spent more than two years in Tehran’s Evin prison.

Iranian gallerists Karan Vafadari and Afarin Neyssari have been released from Tehran’s Evin prison on bail, according to a one sentence post on Facebook by Vafadari’s sister on July 21. Husband and wife, Vafadari and Neyssari, an architect, are the owners of Aun Gallery in Tehran, which since its opening in 2009 held exhibitions for dozens of artists including Nazgol Ansarinia, Farhad Moshiri and Einoddin Sadeghzadeh. Vafadari and Neyssari had been imprisoned since their arrest at the Tehran airport by members of the paramilitary Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on July 20, 2016.

In late January 2018, a hard-line judge in Iran’s Revolutionary Court handed down draconian sentences to both Vafadari and Neyssari. Vafadari was to receive 27 years in prison and 124 lashes, and Neyssari was sentenced to 16 years in prison and 74 lashes. They were also fined with more than nine billion Iranian rials (USD 243,000), and all their assets were confiscated. In a letter smuggled out of prison Vafadari wrote that the charges against them included, “collusion in plots against national security,” “storing smuggled foreign alcohol,” as well as lesser charges such as Vafadari’s possession of his father’s opium pipe and “inappropriate” CDs, movies and playing cards. Vafadari is a member of the Zoroastrian faith, and under the Iranian constitution is exempt from Iran’s Islamic laws, and permitted to own and drink alcohol. The couple were known for hosting parties at their home where many international guests were in attendance, and where alcohol was served.

In his letter, Vafadari wrote that the initial charges against them of espionage and cooperation with foreign governments were ultimately dropped. Nevertheless, the judge convicted them on national security grounds on the basis of “our ‘feminist videos,’ ‘unacceptable visual works of art,’ and a few emails exchanged with the Prince Claus cultural fund (in Holland).” The letter also says that the charges against Neyssari included “presenting and selling works of art against Islamic values.”

Many observers suspect the IRGC was suspicious of the international contacts maintained by the couple through the running of their art gallery. Additionally, Vafadari and Neyssari were arrested in July 2016 a few days after they received a court order to force the IRGC to vacate one of their ancestral properties. Vafadari is a dual national of the United States and Iran, a status that Iran officially does not recognize. However, in recent years, the IRGC has also targeted dual nationals for arrest, to use them as bargaining chips in negotiations or to win prestige for the group in Iran.

After their conviction in January, the couple launched an appeal. In February, the judge set their bail at 100 billion tomans, equivalent to USD 27 million. In May, Vafadari’s son Cyrus told the Wall Street Journal that the family had raised the amount but the judge refused to accept it. At the moment, it is not known what prompted the court’s reversal, and more details about the release of Vafadari and Neyssari are still forthcoming.

HG Masters is ArtAsiaPacific’s editor-at-large.

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