Iran’s Weekly Wire 17: Art Under Attack (listen to the podcast)
You’re listening to Iran’s Weekly Wire; I’m Roland Elliott Brown.
Officially, Iran says it doesn’t imprison people for their opinions.
But inside Iran, life keeps getting worse for anyone who offends the state.
Last week, Tehran’s Revolutionary Court sentenced a 29-year-old artist, Atena Farghadani, to more than twelve years in prison.
Her main “crime” was to draw a pencil sketch showing members of parliament as chimpanzees and farm animals, and to share it on Facebook.
Her sentence wasn’t so unusual. Here’s Raha Bahreini from Amnesty International:
[Raha Bahreini] Atena Farghadani is just one of many prisoners of conscience in the past two years who have been handed down very harsh prison sentences simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression, association and assembly […] her case is similar to the cases of several other activists who have just been given sentences, more than a decade, in the past month.
Iran may be negotiating with its old enemies over its nuclear program, and it may have a nominally reformist government, but none of this has made it tolerant of dissent.
Farghadani is a dissenter, but she’s no criminal. She just lived as if she was free, and exercised basic rights.
She once held an art exhibition to commemorate Iranians killed in the government’s crackdown on Green Movement protesters in 2009. She also met with their relatives.
And she met members of Iran’s Baha’i minority, whose religion is outlawed in Iran.
Her animal cartoon was a simple satire of Iranian members of parliament. She objected to their attempts to restrict access to contraception.
But they were following Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s reactionary new positon on women and families.
It is reasonable to assume that her implicit disagreement with Khamenei is what really landed her in trouble.
In recent years, Khamenei has expressed alarm over Iran’s ageing population.
He sees Iran as a rising military and political power, but he also knows Iran has a lower birthrate than nearly all its neighbors.
He wants to double Iran’s population by restricting access to birth control, and criminalizing voluntary sterilization.
The government sees the position of women in Iran as a national security issue. Here’s Raha Bahreini again.
[Raha Bahreini] This prosecution shows that the Iranian authorities are showing no tolerance for those who advocate for gender equality and also for greater freedom. Atena Farghadani is one of the many activists who has criticized these actions by authorities to restrict women's sexual and reproductive health rights, and instead of paying attention to this issue they are instead sentencing her to prison. Amnesty international and activists across the globe have called on the Iranian authorities to show greater respect for their international human rights obligations, including gender equality.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards first arrested Farghadani last August.
They held her in solitary confinement for extended periods, and subjected her to day-long interrogations over the course of nearly two months.
When she tried to collect used paper cups to draw on, they subjected her a strip search and beat her.
When she threatened to go on a hunger strike, a guard reportedly told her: “shut your mouth or I will hit you so hard that it will be full of blood.”
But last November, they released her on bail.
They may have expected her to keep quiet. Instead, she posted a video on YouTube revealing the abuses she had suffered in prison.
Six weeks later, she was summoned to appear before the Revolutionary Court in Tehran.
This time, she faced a range of vague charges that would be meaningless in a society that didn’t jail people for their opinions.
They included “Gathering and colluding against national security,” “Spreading propaganda against the system,” “Insulting members of parliament through paintings,” and “Insulting her interrogators.”
She was told she would stand trial before an infamous hanging judge named Abolghasem Salavati.
In response, she wrote a devastating letter to Ali Khamenei himself. The website Iran Press Watch quoted it in English. She’s voiced here by an actor:
[Atena Farghadani] I know this Saturday I will be in a court that screams injustice. I will be present before a judge who for years has skewed the balance of justice.
What you call “propaganda against the regime” I call affinity for those whose children were slaughtered in 2009, those who were killed so the roots would not shake in a soil that is no longer fertile.
What you call an “insult to representatives of the parliament by means of cartoons,” I consider to be an artistic expression.
And what you refer to as an “insult to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the three branches of government,” I consider to be a firm response to the arrogance of your armed forces about the so-called “security” and “power” that causes them to entrap “provocateurs” like me.
Then she was rearrested.
When she appeared in court, her parents say she was beaten in the courtroom.
According to her lawyer, she later suffered a heart attack in prison.
Abolghasem Salavati, the judge who has just sentenced Farghadani to over twelve years in prison, is the same judge who is trying the Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian in a closed court now.
But while he may have a frightening reputation, hardly anyone thinks he acts independently. This week I talked to one of IranWire’s cartoonists, Mana Neyestani.
He faced Judge Salavati over one of his own cartoons in 2006. He says,
“[Mana Neyestani] In my experience, when they sentence someone, the verdicts are mostly dictated by superiors, for example the supreme leader's relatives, the Revolutionary Guards, or the intelligence service. Most of the time, judge is only a puppet. He just has some orders to carry out.”
And Salavati isn’t alone. Most authorities go into panic mode whenever someone challenges the supreme leader.
Neyestani also told me what a government intelligence agent said to him during interrogation. He says,
“[Mana Neyestani] He tried to convince me that the supreme leader position in Iran is a national capital which must be guarded by everybody. Also he insisted that artists need to be careful about limitations and sensitive lines.”
Since Iran’s most powerful officials can’t act independently, a free thinker like Atena Farghadani looks to them like a member of a strange enemy tribe. Someone from a different Iran entirely.
And if anyone expected the Rouhani government to help bring the free-thinking tribe in from the cold, it’s pretty clear he’s no match for the courts. Here’s Raha Bahreini again:
[Raha Bahreini] These violations first of all are committed by those associated with Iran's judiciary, that has tried very hard over the past two years, since the entry of Hassan Rouhani into office, to crush any hopes for change. However, there are hopes that president Rouhani and his administration will take a stronger stance on civil and political rights, and express concern at the very least about these violations of basic human rights. However even the president has not taken a serious position There are serious concerns that, overall, the Iranian authorities are turning a blind eye to human rights violations in the country, or are actively perpetrating them.
So far, Farghadani has received considerable support abroad. An Amnesty International campaign collected 33, 000 signatures calling for her release.
But inside Iran, it’s risky for anyone to stand up for her.
As a friend of the Green Movement, and the Baha’i minority, as a women’s rights activist and a social media user, she embodies most of the state’s fears.
And if Iranians share her opinions, they will need more courage than ever to make them heard.
That’s all from Iran’s Weekly Wire. If you want to find out more about this story, join us on Twitter or Facebook, or visit IranWire.com.