Iranian Art Dealer Sentenced to 27 Years in Prison and 124 Lashes for Morality Offenses

Karan Vafadari and his wife Afarin Neyssari stand accused of espionage and possession of alcohol.

Karan Vafadari, an Iranian-American national and his wife Afarin Niasari. Courtesy Center for human Rights in Iran
Karan Vafadari, an Iranian-American national and his wife Afarin Niasari. Courtesy Center for human Rights in Iran.

An Iranian court has sentenced Iranian-American art dealer Karan Vafadari and his wife Afarin Neyssari (who has US permanent residency) to prison on espionage and other charges, a US-based rights group said on Wednesday. The couple has been held since July 2016.

Citing a letter Vafadari wrote from prison dated January 21, the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran said he was given a sentence of 27 years in prison, 124 lashes, a fine of $243,000, and confiscation of all his assets. Neyssari, an architect, was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

The couple are owners of the Aun Gallery in Tehran, which describes itself as “first privately-owned art space designed and built to showcase contemporary art.” Together, they were fixtures of Tehran’s art and social scenes, regularly hosting parties with alcohol and foreign guests at their lavish home. In his letter, Vafadari alleges that the couple’s cosmopolitan lifestyle and Western ties attracted attention from the authorities.

As Zoroastrians, an ancient pre-Islamic religious minority, the couple theoretically isn’t subject to Iran’s strict Islamic laws governing alcohol consumption and hosting mixed gatherings. However, the dealer noted in his letter that this didn’t stop the court from sentencing him to an additional 18 months, 64 lashes, and $38,000 for drinking wine; three years and $162,000 for accepting gifts of alcohol from diplomats and foreigners; and 15 years for hosting parties at his home.

In his letter, Vafadari denounced the harsh sentences as “unjust and tyrannical” and said the “accusations and interrogations” he endured “indicated a deeper plot.”

Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Vafadari’s son Cyrus described the legal process as “opaque” and said his father and stepmother will file an appeal to argue that as Zoroastrians they are permitted to drink alcohol and host mixed parties by the Iranian constitution.

US media is speculating that the severity of the sentences indicates that the Iranian government orchestrated the punishment to use as a bargaining chip for a prisoner release deal to free Iranian nationals held in the US. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif has already indicated that Iran would consider a prisoner exchange agreement.

In a statement, the US State Department said they are aware of the sentencing. “We call for the immediate release of all US citizens unjustly detained and missing in Iran. We continue to raise the cases of US citizens unjustly detained and missing in Iran in our engagements with the Iranian government,” a State Department official said.


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