Atena Farghadani is a 29 year old Iranian cartoonist who was arrested in August 2014 for drawing a cartoon depicting Iranian members of parliament as animals following a bill meant to prohibit contraceptive methods in order to increase the birthrate in Iran. She was convicted of the usual accusations reserved for anyone criticizing the regime: colluding against national security, assembly and collusion, spreading propaganda against the regime, insulting the regime, insulting the Supreme Leader, insulting the IRGC etc… as well as “gathering and colluding with anti-revolutionary individuals and deviant sects” when she met with families of political prisoners. At first, she received a minor sentence of only three months in jail and was released in November 2014.
Farghadani could have kept quiet but she didn’t: following her release, she wrote letters of protest to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, to President Hassan Rouhani and to the head of the prison service and even posted a video in which she explained how she was beaten and abused while in prison. In her letter to Khamenei, she went on to question the legitimacy of her imprisonment: “What you call an ‘insult to representatives of the parliament by means of cartoons, I consider to be an artistic expression of the home of our nation (parliament), which our nation does not deserve!” and “what you refer to as an “insult to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the three branches of government during the course of interrogation” 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“. This was enough for the authorities to re-arrest her on January 2015 and in June 2015, she was sentenced in a one-day trial by the notorious judge Abolghassem Salavati to 12 year and 9 months in jail. While in jail, she was seen shaking hands with her lawyer and charges were brought up against both of them for “illegitimate sexual relationship short of adultery” which could have extended her prison time. But before the issue came to court, she was forced to submit to a humiliating “virginity test” which is internationally recognized as a form of torture and discrimination against women. She was then pressured to retract all of her complaints and to sign a full confession – she bravely did neither and went on a series of hunger strikes.
Farghadani’s plight was taken up by organizations promoting freedom of speech and freedom of the arts, by organizations such as Amnesty and Reporters without Borders, as well as by the UN (her imprisonment and experiences in jail are in contravention of numerous international laws) and somehow, against all odds, the pressure to free Farghadani seems to have succeeded: in her appeal, the judge reduced her sentence to 18 months (!) and she is set to be freed in the coming month.
Farghadani’s experience exemplify two messages: the first is that Tehran will continue to oppress and try to imprison or eliminate any criticism against the regime. It has done so against reporters, artists, political oppositionists, human rights activists etc… and it will probably continue to do so in the near future. The second message is pressure against the regime to free these prisoners of conscience may not be easy but it may lead to success – pressure groups should understand that however daunting the task may seem, they should not give up on the brave Iranians whose critical voices against the regime are being stifled.