Atena Farghadani — imprisoned in Iran for her art

We do not know if Atena Farghadani — a 28-year-old Iranian painter, activist and political prisoner — is alive. Arrested for the second time in January, she was last reported to have been removed from prison and hospitalized on Feb. 26. After a hunger strike to protest her unjust detention, she suffered a heart attack. Now her fate lies with those who imprisoned her for her artistic expressions.

Farghadani was first detained in August 2014. Revolutionary Guards stormed her home, blindfolded her and confiscated her personal belongings. Held in solitary confinement for five days at the infamous Evin Prison, she was moved into the general population, only to be returned to solitary confinement for another 10 days after she went on a hunger strike. She later learned that it was an illustration that she had posted on Facebook that constituted her crime against the Iranian state. She was charged with “spreading propaganda about the system” and “insulting members of the parliament through paintings.”

As a member of Parliament myself, I am intimately aware of the rights and privileges afforded to representatives of the people in a liberal democracy. Freedom from mockery is not amongst them. Farghadani’s illustration depicted members of the Iranian legislature as animals, as they cast their votes on a controversial domestic issue: the prohibition of voluntary permanent contraception, or vasectomies. Her cartoon — which, by Canadian standards, was quite mild — proved too threatening to be ignored.
In a video message Farghadani released in late December following her initial release on bail, she details her ill-treatment by prison guards. She was subjected to degrading body searches, beatings and daily interrogations — for nine hours a day — for over a month and a half. Still, in a testament to her enduring spirit, she managed to make art out of paper cups she collected from bathroom waste baskets.

As we approach Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s third year in office, the hope that many observers held for him to initiate serious political reforms in the country has begun to fade. Despite laudatory initial efforts — the appointment of a special adviser on ethnic and religious minorities and a revised Code of Criminal Procedure — a recently released Amnesty International Report clearly shows that these efforts have done little to change the abhorrent reality faced by many Iranians.

Minority religious communities continue to face deep social, political and economic discrimination: the Baha’i are systematically denied access to higher education; Sufis and Sunni Muslims face severe persecution for their beliefs; and all ethnic and religious minorities live under threat of execution due to the capital crime of “enmity against God.”

Access to legal representation upon arrest is neither timely nor assured and the torture of detainees persists with impunity. Iran’s penal code continues to impose draconian punishments on those unfortunate enough to be either incapable or unwilling to conform to the state’s narrow interpretation of proper Islamic conduct.

Atena Farghadani’s story highlights many of these regressive Iranian state policies. It was her activism in support of the Baha’i people and the 2009 Green Revolution that was the subject of her repeated interrogation. She had no access to a lawyer throughout her detention and it is uncertain that she has received the urgent medical care she requires. In an open letter to Ayatollah Khamenei, defending herself against the charges laid upon her, she notes: “I will be in a court that screams injustice.”
Iran Accountability Week is an opportunity to unite our voices and call for a better Iran. While acknowledging the West’s history of disastrous meddling with Iranian affairs, we must never relent in calling for the respect for universal human rights for all peoples in all countries. The people of Iran deserve better from their government.

With an agreement in principle on a nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries following tireless diplomatic efforts, the promise of Iranian progress has never been greater. While we applaud what we hope is the beginning of the end of contemporary Iranian isolation, we must redouble our efforts to ensure the country takes meaningful action to improve upon its human-rights record. The Iranian people are not helped by isolation, nor are they helped by a West that engages with the Iranian government without demanding respect for the human rights of all its citizens.

I plead with Iranian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Atena Farghadina. Through her peaceful exercise of her freedom of expression, she has demonstrated courage and strength in the face of intolerable cruelty. In her own words, she “must pay retribution for defending my beloved defenceless people.” May she be the last prisoner of conscience and become a free woman once again.

Originally published in the National Post.