Iranian Gallerists Sentenced to Prison
By Brady Ng
Tehran-based Iranian-American art gallery operator Karan Vafadari has been sentenced to 27 years in prison, 124 lashes and a cash fine of USD 243,000 by Tehran’s hardline Revolutionary Court. His wife Afarin Niasari, who is an Iranian national with permanent residency in the United States and who owns Aun Gallery along with Vafadari, received a 16-year prison sentence. Aside from the cash fine, all of Vafadari’s assets in the Islamic Republic will be confiscated, according to a letter he sent to the Center for Human Rights in Iran from the country’s infamous Evin Prison, where many other political prisoners, intellectuals deemed to be subversives, and members of the Baha’i and Zoroastrian faiths are held.
The couple were arrested by the paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in July 2016, when agents of the IRGC intercepted Niasari at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport as she was about to board a flight to attend a relative’s wedding. Niasari was told to call her husband and ask him to meet her at the airport. He was detained as soon as he arrived. The next day, IRGC agents went to the couple’s home and Aun Gallery, where they damaged, destroyed and confiscated artworks. Vafadari and Niasari were then taken to Evin Prison. The reason behind their arrest had previously been stated to be that the couple has served alcoholic beverages at private parties where men and women mingled. However, the couple are of Zoroastrian faith and are not subject to Islamic laws, according to Iran’s constitution.
In 2017, Vafadari and Niasari faced more serious charges, and were accused of committing espionage, “attempting to overthrow the regime” and “conferring to conspire against national security.”
In his letter dated January 21, 2018, Vafadari wrote that the court rulings are based on a law that allows for the personal property of dual nationals in Iran to be seized by the state and auctioned off. He also indicated that the couple were accused of being part of a “deeper plot” during interrogations, and that the prison sentences indicate that “every one of you dual national Zoroastrians who returned to your country to invest in the homeland you love, are always going to be in danger of losing your assets and forced to leave the country.”
It remains unclear what charge Vafadari and Niasari have been convicted of.
Aun Gallery was established in 2009 and was Tehran’s first privately owned contemporary art space. The gallery’s programming included around ten exhibitions per year, showcasing works by painter and silkscreen printer Khosrow Hassanzadeh, installation artist Mahmoud Bakhshi, as well as sculptor and public art practitioner Sahand Hesamiyan, among others. The gallery has been shuttered since its owners’ arrest.
Aside from being an art dealer who is well respected in the Iranian capital, Vafadari belongs to a prominent family that is known for their charitable work. In particular, an endowment from the family supports the Firoozgar Hospital in Tehran.
Brady Ng is the reviews editor of ArtAsiaPacific.
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