Iranian artist-activist Atena Farghadani. (photo via CRNI)
Iranian artist-activist Atena Farghadani. (photo via CRNI)

“I believe Atena is a victim of the judicial system … and people who should have supported her,” Nikahang Kowsar said last summer, after fellow Iranian political cartoonist Atena Farghadani was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison for drawing her nation’s parliament as animals for her critique of birth-control laws.

Now, less than a year later, Farghadani could win her release this month, reports Kowsar, now a board member of the Washington-based Cartoonist Rights Network International, which fights to protect artists around the world.

The Post’s Comic Riffs caught up with Kowsar — who was once jailed in Iran for his work — to talk about the status of Atena’s case:

MICHAEL CAVNA: You’ve been in direct contact with Atena’s attorney through much of this ordeal, Nik. What’s the latest you’re hearing: Is he hopeful that Atena will be released any day now? And do you have a sense of how much is optimism, and how much is the court actually acknowledging or deliberately signaling an imminent release?

NIKAHANG KOWSAR: He hopes to have Atena released by May 11. I hope that the judiciary acknowledges the final verdict, and also hope that security forces would not have any objections. Atena has suffered, and like many other activists and artists and journalists, should not spend time behind bars for expressing her opinions.


Atena Farghadani’s rendering of members of Iran’s parliament as apes, cows and other animals. (image via CRNI)

MC: Atena’s attorney [Mohammad Moghimi ] has taken such a deliberate tack with, as you’ve noted, not trying to make Atena a symbol as cause celebre, but rather has aimed to keep this case about her artwork and her creative actions. What’s your sense of how savvy this approach has been?

NK: I was the inspector of the Iranian Association of Journalists and had to follow up with all those legal cases brought upon fellow reporters and journalists. My own lawyer, who also was a university professor, did not try to take advantage of my case to become a star. Atena’s lawyer has had to go through a lot of trouble, especially when he was charged with indecent behavior after shaking hands with his client. He knew that everyone was looking at him through a magnifying glass, and [he] had to fight an uphill battle. He knew that fighting for his client would not be easy if he wanted to attack the values of the Revolutionary Court.

I have lots of respect for Mohammad Moghimi as a lawyer and [as] a very wise man who is assisting human-rights activists.

MC: So what are you hearing, too, specifically about her reduced sentence? What are the terms you have heard?

NK: The charges for undermining national security have been dismissed. The Revolutionary Court loves to label activists with this dangerous charge, and now she’s been acquitted from that part of the sentence. Her sentence for insulting the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] was also suspended. This type of suspension acts like Damocles’s sword, and the individual who wants to stay out of trouble should avoid saying or writing anything that could be interpreted as insulting the system or the leader’s rhetoric. Atena’s drawing that criticized the members of parliament was a critique of the leader’s will.

The leader wants the population to reach 120 million. The funny thing is that Iran is experiencing a drought; the water resources are not enough for 80 million Iranians living within the borders.

MC: You’ve been held in infamous Evin Prison. What’s your sense of the treatment she has received there? 

NK: Evin is a weird place. When you’re there, you think about all those executed and tortured prisoners who had lived at the very same cell you had to call home for while. Being blindfolded, having to answer the questions without being able to see the interrogator, where you feel your fate is in his hands. You know you have to avoid answering questions that could be used against your colleagues and friends. It’s a very complicated situation, especially when your interrogator reads you the forced confessions against you.

Atena had been held in different prisons. Knowing how resistant she is to the orders of the officers, I’m sure she’s had a very hard time, but she also knew that the officials are scared of hunger strikes and that possibly helped her being seen by a doctor.

"Zen Pencils: Atena," by Gavin AT. (used by permission of the artist)
“Zen Pencils: Atena,” by Gavin AT. (used by permission of the artist)

MC: We heard reports that she was subjected to an inhumane “virginity test” because she shook her male lawyer’s hand. We heard of strip searches. What do you know about what she’s endured?

Even thinking about a forced virginity test is painful, and I hope to have a chance to hear what she exactly went through. I have talked to many former prisoners since 2009, and acted as their interpreters. And though it has been a painful experience, it has taught me a lot about the inhumane conditions political prisoners have endured. Many who have not had the chance to be treated by therapists after being released. I should state that many have shown signs of PTSD, and that’s something that should be dealt with.

MC: What would you advise Atena upon her release — to stay and be vocal in Iran, or to leave the nation as soon as possible or face re-arrest?

NK: What she could possibly do, has to do with her own plans. Certainly I’m not in a position to tell her what to do or what to avoid. Atena is a bright-minded individual. I can tell her what I would have done If I were in her shoes; I would avoid the media and just thank all the people who have supported me, go to northern provinces and the Caspian Sea and get rid of Internet and my cellphone for a while. I would get back to drawing — possibly chronicle my time in prison through my cartoons. Be creative and think clearly without being pushed by others.

I would avoid being vocal for a while, knowing that each and every move will be monitored. I believe that going back to prison would not help my cause. I can only talk to Atena about my own experiences in the last 16 years.

MC: You yourself ultimately got out of Iran under harrowing circumstances.

NK: After being released in February 2000, I was silent for only 10 days, and started working again, without ever thinking of the consequences of attacking the hardliners. I just wanted to be independent and make a better country for my child. I brought a lot of trouble to myself and my family, and after years of tolerating pressure, multiple interrogations and receiving death threats, I had to leave my family behind to leave Iran. Many family members were blaming me for what I had done; they were victimizing the victim. I was the victim of a corrupt system, and being victimized by judgmental people who did not believe in fighting for democracy wasn’t a pleasant experience. One of the last things anyone needs after getting out of prison or a bad situation, is being harshly criticized by loved ones and people who have no rights to judge you. This is where a therapist could save you from PTSD.

I’m living far and away from the regime, using the Internet and satellite TV to reach out to my audiences and continue doing what I have always loved to do. Of course, I should point out that after being struck by Fibromyalgia in 2013, it’s been really hard to draw, but I use my cartoon-generating platform Toonistan  to make cartoons when they’re needed. I believe I’ve been more effective living abroad.

MC: So we’ve had a few prominent releases of journalists and activists in Iran already this year. What might we read politically from these moves — is anything occurring within the institutions that might point to any larger changes, or is this more a temporary shift in the political winds?

NK: And we also had a few reporters sentenced to five to 10 years in prison last week; all supporters of President Hassan Rouhani. It’s Iran we’re talking about, where things don’t make sense once in a while.

The system always wants you to know that they’re watching you. It’s an Orwellian world, and the enforcers may let you go, but also try to turn you into an irrelevant Winston Smith.

First of all, we should understand that all Iranian politicians are rooted in the same ideology, and the Supreme Leader and Revolutionary guards are still in power. Politicians such as Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who’s become a sweetheart of many Western reporters, are continuously deceiving Western audiences through the media. One year ago, on the “Charlie Rose” show, Mr. Zarif said; “We do not jail people for their opinions,” and very few scrutinized him. The Islamic Republic not only imprisons, but has killed many for their opinions. Many political activists, Baha’is, converts and members of the LGBT community have been executed by this regime.

Last week, Zarif told the New Yorker that the Iranian government does not support the Holocaust Cartoon Contest. He lied again and government officials in Iran denied Zarif’s claim. It’s the same regime and nothing has really changed, except that the number of executions that has clearly risen under Rouhani’s years in office.


“Zen Pencils: Atena,” by Gavin AT (used by permission of the artist).