Iran: Serious health fears for artist on prison hunger strike

Photo: Atena Farghadani © Private

Iranian prisoner of conscience and artist, Atena Farghadani, could be on death’s door after being hospitalized following a hunger strike lasting three weeks. Amnesty International is urging the Iranian authorities to release her immediately and unconditionally.

According to her lawyer, the 28-year-old painter and activist was relocated from Gharchak Prison to a hospital on 26 February, after suffering a heart attack and briefly lost consciousness last week. She stopped taking any food, sugar or salt on 9 February in protest at her continued detention and ill-treatment at Gharchak Prison in Varamin, 50 km south of Tehran, where she was being held with individuals convicted of serious crimes. In hospital she has refused an intravenous drip.

Atena should never have been imprisoned in the first place. Her repeated arbitrary arrest and detention for her artistic work is a flagrant assault on freedom of expression.

Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa

“Her life is now literally in the hands of the Iranian authorities. She must receive the urgent medical care she needs, and the Iranian authorities must release her and all other prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally.”

She has vowed not to end her hunger strike unless the Iranian authorities agree transfer her to Evin Prison in the capital.

Atena Farghadani was arrested for a second time on 10 January 2015 after being summoned to a Revolutionary Court, possibly in reprisal for a video message that she issued after her first release describing her experience in detention. Her parents told reporters that she was subjected to beatings in the courtroom before being transferred to Gharchak Prison.

Her charges include “spreading propaganda against the system”, “insulting members of the parliament through paintings”, and “insulting the Supreme Leader”, based on her art exhibitions, critical paintings, and other peaceful activities such as meeting with families of political prisoners. Her lawyer has not yet been allowed to read her casefile.

Previous arrest

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards first arrested Atena Farghadani on 23 August 2014. They searched her house, confiscated her personal belongings and took her away, blindfolded. She was then held for five days in solitary confinement in Section 2A of Evin Prison, which the Revolutionary Guards control, before being transferred to a cell shared with Ghoncheh Ghavami, a British-Iranian prisoner of conscience arrested for protesting women’s exclusion from volleyball. Atena Farghadani was held in solitary confinement for another 10 days after she started a hunger strike in protest at her detention.

Atena Farghadani later told media she was interrogated for nine hours every day over a period of a month and a half at Evin Prison. The interrogations revolved around meetings she had with families of those killed amid unrest after Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election, as well as a cartoon she had drawn and posted on Facebook.

The illustration, which depicted members of parliament casting a ballot, was critical of members of the parliament for considering a bill that sought to criminalize voluntary sterilization as part of a larger plan to restrict access to contraception and family planning services.

The authorities also brought the charge of “gathering and colluding with anti-revolutionary individuals and deviant sects” against Atena Farghadani for her art exhibition, named “Parandegan-e Khak” (“Birds of Earth”), which referred to those killed in the aftermath of the 2009 disputed election and was attended by relatives of political prisoners as well as members of the Baha’i community.

She had no access to a lawyer or her family throughout this time. After she went on hunger strike to protest her detention, the authorities released her on a hefty bail on 6 November.

Video testimony about ill-treatment at Evin Prison

According to a video message Atena Farghadani posted in late December following her release, female prison guards at Evin Prison had beaten her and subjected her to degrading body searches and other ill-treatment for trying to continue her painting in prison, using discarded paper cups and flowers from the exercise area.

She also said that the prison authorities had installed surveillance cameras in bathrooms at Section 2A of Evin Prison, which they used to catch her taking some of the paper cups from a rubbish bin. In her video message she said:“The [female prison guards] were whispering…‘why does she want the cups?’ One of them was saying ‘rewind the film back’…. One of the guards opened the cell door violently…and shouted ‘take off your clothes’. I told them that what they were doing was illegal…one of the guards who swore a lot held my hands up, because I was resisting the body search… My right hand hit the wall and my wrist became swollen and bruised…I told them that I was on ‘dry’ hunger strike and that I would file a complaint. One of them told me ‘shut your mouth or I will hit you so hard that your mouth will be full of blood’.”

Atena Farghadani’s story is a chilling glimpse inside the horrors of life behind bars for Iran’s prisoners of conscience. It should be a wake-up call for the authorities that the truth will come out no matter how hard they try to suppress it.

Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui