Imprisoned for drawing a satirical cartoon, prosecuted for shaking her lawyer’s hand in prison – Atena Farghadani has paid a high price for making art and speaking her mind in Iran, where dissent is met with heavy punishment.
30-year-old Atena was freed one year ago after an international campaign for her release – she had been due to serve 11 more years in prison. But she isn’t free of the nightmare.
Atena remains in Iran, and spoke to us via Skype for this podcast. She does not speak English; her words are voiced by UK-Iranian actress Nazanin Boniadi.
Imprisoned for her art
In 2014, Atena was arrested for a cartoon that she had drawn a few months previously. The art student had depicted members of the Iranian government as monkeys in parliament, in response to new government plans to significantly roll back women’s rights and reproductive rights for all in the country.
12 members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards came to Atena’s home in September 2014. They questioned Atena and her family, and took Atena away for interrogation. Her nightmare had begun.
Atena was taken to Evin prison and immediately placed in solitary confinement. She was kept in the small cell in isolation for two weeks, leaving only for intense interrogations.
Atena hadn’t committed any crime – she’d simply been expressing her right to freedom of expression, through her artwork, and freedom of association, by meeting with families of political prisoners. But the Iranian authorities were determined to punish Atena for speaking out. Every part of her life was put under the microscope.
Atena described the interrogations:
After six weeks of interrogation – the first fortnight in solitary confinement – Atena was released on bail. In December, once she was out of prison, Atena posted a youtube video about her experiences under interrogation. She was summoned to court a week later, but there was no trial – Atena was taken straight to prison.
Shackled to the hospital bed
In February 2015, Atena went on hunger strike to protest against her prison conditions. She was being held in Gharchak prison, where violence was rife, and extreme – there were murders and rapes, with prison guards too afraid to intervene. Atena appealed to be moved to Evin prison, where political prisoners are held.
After 22 days of hunger strike, Atena suffered a heart attack.
“I was transferred to hospital. My family weren’t permitted to visit me. Even in hospital, I was handcuffed and shackled to the bed.”
Doctors said she was at risk of slipping into a coma. Atena was moved to Evin prison.
After nine months in detention, on 1 June 2015, Atena was sentenced to 12 years and nine months in prison for charges including:
- Gathering and colluding against national security
- Spreading propaganda against the system
- Insulting members of parliament through paintings
- Insulting her interrogators.
Subjected to ‘virginity tests’ for shaking her lawyer’s hand
“The prosecutor said if I were ‘a good girl’, I would not shake hands with a man.”
While her lawyer was visiting Atena in prison, Atena shook his hand, to thank him. The prison authorities saw this and punished her over the odds.
Atena’s lawyer was himself imprisoned and put on trial. Atena, too, faced more charges for having ‘a sexual relationship short of adultery’. She was smeared in the press.
Atena was subjected to a ‘pregnancy test’ and a ‘virginity test’ for shaking her lawyer’s hand.
“It was invasive and degrading. It was a way of putting pressure on me. It’s a tactic they use sometimes against political prisoners – particularly young, unmarried women.”
Atena went on hunger strike again – to protest against the new, ridiculous charges.
“I said I would rather die than to lose my reputation in this way – this accusation must be removed from my file.”
The charges were eventually dismissed – but only after Atena had been put on trial.
“They immediately arranged a trial for me. I didn’t have any representation as my lawyer was now also on trial himself. Eventually, his lawyer ended up representing me too, and we were both exonerated.”
Secretly painting in prison
Atena kept her spirits up in prison by painting – using whatever she could find.
“The guards would bring us milk in paper cups, which I would save to draw on. I’d gather flower petals and twigs in the prison yard, and crush the petals into a paste to use as paint… When the guards found one of the drawings in my cell, they stopped bringing me paper cups.”
When the prison guards discovered Atena had been painting, they interrogated her and searched her body for any materials. They didn’t believe she had made the paint from flower petals.
Released over a decade early
“I really didn’t expect to be released from jail”
More than a year and a half after she was first arrested, and after a huge international campaign for her release, Atena was freed from prison on 3 May 2016. Her 12 year and 9 month sentence had been reduced to 18 months, after an appeal. The charge of ‘spreading propaganda against the system’ with her cartoon was upheld, though it was decided she had already served time for this.
Atena was given a three-year suspended sentence for ‘insulting Iran’s leader’ – which means that she could still be sent back to prison at any point until May 2019. This is a common tactic to try to deter former prisoners from speaking out.
While her experience has scarred Atena, it has not stopped her from speaking out. She has been expelled from art school and no galleries will exhibit her artwork – she says they are too scared – but Atena remains defiant and determined.
“I won’t stop what I’m doing at all, even though I think I may get sent back to prison. I don’t intend to stop protesting or making political art.”