The inhumane conditions that 28-year-old artist Atena Farghadani has been subjected to over the past nine months in Iran are horrifying to consider. Arrested in August 2014 by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, she was imprisoned for four months in Tehran Province’s Gharchak Prison, where she was allegedly beaten and interrogated for up to nine hours a day. After a brief release in December, she was rearrested and sent to Evin Prison in January for posting a video online about her torture. In late February, she went on hunger strike and suffered a heart attack; she’s been shuttered away in a solitary confinement cell ever since.
Why? According to the BBC, Farghadani drew a political cartoon criticizing a law drafted last March that would restrict access to birth control and make vasectomies illegal. The drawing recast Iranian MPs as apes and goats ignorantly casting their votes.
For daring to express her opinion, she’s now facing charges of insulting her government and spreading propaganda; if convicted at trial, she could receive lashes and another two years in prison. Somehow, Farghadani seems undaunted. She bravely refuted the accusations in an open letter to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei:
“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!”
The case has drawn worldwide attention on social media through the hashtag #freeatena, a Facebook page of the same title (with more than 7,000 likes), and an Amnesty International petition, which received 33,000 signatures and was presented to the Iranian Embassy in London on May 18.
Many other cartoonists have also suffered for their work this year; in fact, it seems to be a particularly terrible year for their trade. In January, five French cartoonists — Jean “Cabu” Cabut, Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier, Bernard “Tignous” Verlhac, Philippe Honoré and Georges Wolinski — were killed along with other staff members when ISIS gunmen stormed the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, angered by a cartoon mocking Mohammed.
In February, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ordered an investigation of newspaper cartoonist Mohammad Saba’aneh for a cartoon that some thought depicted Mohammad. Abbas was eventually asked to apologize for it, as he recently told Mondoweiss, though he has previously been jailed over his work by Israeli authorities.
Similarly in March, the Ecuadorian government opened a criminal investigation against the El Universo newspaper cartoonist Bonil, who has previously gone on trial for his work. According to PanAm Post, Officials have done so under the pretense that Bonil’s comics discriminated against a legislator in the ruling party because he is black, and that discrimination because of ethnicity or socioeconomic status is punishable by law with up to three years in prison.
In Turkey, the cartoonists Bahadir Baruter and Ozer Aydogan were sentenced on March 24 to 14 months in prison for supposedly insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a cartoon on the cover of the August 2014 issue of the satirical magazine Penguen. It showed the head of state telling an official outside his palace, “What a bland celebration. We could have at least sacrificed a journalist.” The sentence was eventually reduced so that the artists only had to pay 7,000 Liras each.
And most recently on May 20, the Malaysian cartoonist Zunar went to court to refute nine counts of sedition brought against him for drawings and tweets criticizing the country’s judicial system; if convicted on all counts, he could spend 43 years in prison. “My [artistic] talent isn’t just a gift, it’s a responsibility. We artists, including cartoonists, need to overcome self-censorship and do what’s right according to our principals,” he wrote in an op-ed published the same day in Malay Mail Online. “There are many ways to protest, but laughter is the best form of protest.”
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Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and loitering in her community bookstore.