It remains to be seen how seriously Dastoori’s case will be treated by the Intelligence Ministry. But other recent summons and arrests, including that of Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, have resulted in multi-year sentences after vague charges that the defendants were involved in cultural infiltration of the Islamic Republic and attempts at the “soft overthrow” of the Iranian regime. Dastoori’s detention is evidently based on her relationship with the prestigious Western film festival, as she and her colleague Anke Leweke had been in Iran to select Iranian films for the coming year’s event.
In addition to barring Dastoori from leaving the country with her colleague, the Iranian intelligence agents also confiscated the selected films. Speaking to the International Campaign, a source close to the case described this as a strange move, considering that most of those films had already been screened at an international film festival inside Iran. However, it bears mentioning that various films have been screened at Western film festivals in the past after being barred from Iranian distribution by the regime’s highly active censorship authorities.
In this way, the Dastoori case is indicative not only of the ongoing crackdown on dual nationals but also on the intensified restrictions on Iranian art, music, journalism, and other cultural or political expressions. The notably strict and often violent enforcement of these restrictions was the general topic of an Amnesty International urgent call to action, issued by the human rights organization on Thursday. The document calls for supporters to write to the Iranian judiciary and supreme leader regarding the punishment facing filmmaker Keyvan Karimi after he was taken to Evin Prison on November 23.
Karimi was sentenced in October 2015 to six years in prison and 223 lashes, following seven hearings that were spread over the course of several months but lasted only 15 to 20 minutes each. As well as giving his defense attorney inadequate time to present a defense, the Revolutionary Court arbitrarily changed the sentence against him from “spreading propaganda against the system” to “insulting Islamic sanctities.” The former charge had been related to a documentary he had made about Iranian graffiti artists, while the latter was based on a music video found on his hard drive, and was only brought to his attention during his final trial session.
The charge of “insulting Islamic sanctities” resulted in his sentence of six years in prison. The lashing punishment is related to his alleged violation of Iranian laws regarding gender segregation, as he was accused of shaking hands with a female poet and occupying the same room with her while she was not wearing her legally mandated head covering. Flogging sentences are frequently meted out for violations of Iran’s hardline Islamic moral code, and Iranian artists are often the target of such charges.
The Amnesty International document names a number of other artists who have similarly been convicted of crimes for their peaceful activities, following unfair trials. It urges a halt to this general crackdown, and also to the sort of brutal corporal punishment that Karimi is expected to be subjected to in the coming days. His recent summons to begin serving his sentence came after his conviction was upheld on appeal – a development that arguably reaffirms the regime’s commitment to its ongoing crackdown, and its rejection of international human rights standards even in the face of close scrutiny by human rights activists and foreign governments.
Naturally, the attacks on dual nationals have only contributed to this scrutiny. And the Dastoori case is only one very recent example thereof. On Friday, the International Campaign also reported upon the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ detention of Iranian-American dual national Karan Vafadari and his wife Afarin Niasari. Their initial arrest took place approximately three months ago, but their case was only given public attention after Vafadari’s sister went to the press following repeated broken promises that the case would be resolved.
This follows a frequent pattern in politically motivated arrests, wherein family members are warned that public comment will make the situation worse, while the arrestees are held in secret. No charges have been publicly announced for Vafadari or Niasari, although members of the Iranian parliament identified them by name and accused them of violating the country’s morality laws by hosting mixed gender parties and possessing alcohol. However, the International Campaign points out that, at least in theory, Vafadari is not subject to these religious restrictions because he is a member of the constitutionally recognized Zoroastrian minority community.
But in practice, the same religious standards are applied universally, and even constitutionally recognized religious groups are subject to persecution and institutionalized discrimination. In absence of a full account of the case against Vafadari, one may assume that he was targeted based on his religious identity, his dual national status, the couple’s patronage of the arts, or any combination of these three factors. The International Campaign’s report indicates that Vafadari and his wife own an art gallery and that numerous pieces were either destroyed or confiscated, both in the gallery and in their home, at the time of their arrest.
But whichever form of crackdown the Vafadari case represents, there are sure to be reports in the near future to indicate that the regime’s intimidation has been ineffective at silence the overall population’s religious, cultural, or artistic expressions. In fact, some recent reports have insisted that the repression has only accelerated the growth of persecuted communities, as a form of rebellion. Iran News Update previously highlighted a report at Fox News which claimed that the rate of conversions to Christianity was increasing despite government crackdowns. On Friday, a similar report at Patheos said much the same thing, specifically estimated the current size of the Iranian Christian community at approximately three million, compared to 100,000 in 1994.
According to an op-ed on Tuesday in The Hill. the plight and perseverance of Iranian Christians, with the expatriate Iranian author pointing out that the situation had not improved in any measure since the 2013 election or President Hassan Rouhani. For PMOI activists, the lack of moderation under Rouhani is evidence that the international community should commit to exerting pressure on the Iranian regime over human rights, while also seeking partnerships outside of that regime.
Such partnerships exist both inside and outside of Iran, as was highlighted both by the editorial and by the Patheos article. Just as the PMOI maintains networks inside Iran and among worldwide Iranian expatriate communities, the persecution of Iranian Christians is apparently driving two parallel trends: the increasing organization of the convert community and the exodus of Christians who have experienced intolerable levels of persecution or intimidation.
What’s more, a two-part report at IranWire also points to the prevalence of this trend among Iran’s reformist and independent journalists. The report detailed the findings of a Royal Society of Medicine study into the mental health of Iranian journalists, and found high rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. It also noted that these trends persist even among expatriate journalists, who made up two-thirds of the participants in a survey of their experiences.
Among journalists working both inside and outside of their Persian homeland, some 20 percent reported having been tortured, while 61 percent experienced other forms of intimidation and 50 percent witnessed intimidation being directed against their families.
These trends have also seemingly accelerated in the midst of the current crackdown, as human rights organizations continue to accumulate reports of the political imprisonment of journalists. On Thursday, the International Campaign reported, for instance, that the photographer Alieh Matlabzadeh, who had previously worked for various reformist publications, had been apprehended by the Intelligence Ministry on November 26.
Matlabzadeh’s husband reported that authorities had said charges against her would become clear after 10 days, thus confirming that she had been arrested without charge and that the Intelligence Ministry was working to build a case against her through the process of interrogation.
While her work in reformist media was no doubt a contributing factor in her arrest, her case bears similarities to that of Vafadari and others in that it highlights multiple targets of the regime’s persecutions. In this case, Matlabzadeh’s arrest came after she attended a workshop in Georgia on female empowerment. The International Campaign found that at least 20 other attendees had also been questioned by Iranian authorities, and that arrests are apparently ongoing.
Meanwhile, various reports point to other types of activists being either arrested without charge or being subjected to additional pressures while already serving prison sentences or languishing in pre-trial detention. The Human Rights Activists News Agency reported on Thursday that two activists had been arrested in the city of Tabriz, one for undisclosed reasons and one apparently for taking pictures at a tourist destination in the city. At around the same time, two other activists in the same city were sentenced to four months for their peaceful activities.
And on Friday, the National Council of Resistance of Iran sought to call attention to the case of two female Kurdish political prisoners, Afsaneh Bayazid and Hajar Piri, alleging that prison authorities had placed them among the general prison population instead of in the ward designated for political prisoners, and had conducted unlawful raids of their cells and confiscated their belongings.