x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Iranian actress sentenced to 90 lashes over role in Australian film

Marzieh Vafamehr's lawyer is appealing against sentence as Peyman Aref, a student, received 74 lashes on Sunday for 'insulting the president of Iran', Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Marzieh Vafamehr in My Tehran For Sale: her role has earned her a sentence of 90 lashes and a year in prison.
Marzieh Vafamehr in My Tehran For Sale: her role has earned her a sentence of 90 lashes and a year in prison.

An Iranian actress has been sentenced to 90 lashes and a year in prison for starring in an Australian film about the risks taken by artists in Iran for creative expression.

Marzieh Vafamehr's lawyer is appealing and it is unclear whether the draconian punishment would be carried out.

There was no such uncertainty in the case of Peyman Aref, a student who received 74 lashes on Sunday before leaving Tehran's Evin jail.

He had served a year for insulting the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mr Ahmadinejad, conscious of his image, sought to distance himself from the punishment yesterday, saying high-profile political figures had criticised him with impunity.

"Since influential people can freely defame us, I disapprove of flogging a young man for insulting the president," Mr Ahmadinejad said.

It was likely he was referring to his hardline rivals in Iran's judiciary and parliament. With parliamentary elections in March, both institutions will relish the president's embarrassment.

On Monday, the European Union slapped asset freezes and travel bans on a further 29 officials in Iran for what William Hague, Britain's foreign secretary, called Tehran's "appalling human rights record".

An Iranian journalist in Tehran, who asked not to be named, said: "Whipping a student now was the last thing Ahmadinejad would want because of the bad publicity it generated at home and abroad."

Mr Aref, 29, was shackled to a prison wall and flogged with a coarse leather whip.

Iran's online community reacted with horror and dismay after photographs of the student's bloodied and lacerated back were posted on social networking sites.

Ms Vafamehr's plight is likely to be equally discomfiting for Mr Ahmadinejad.

The actress, who appeared in the Australian-produced film My Tehran for Sale, made in 2008, was arrested in July and sentenced at the weekend, according to the Iranian opposition website kalameh.com.

The "shocked and saddened" producers of the film, Julie Ryan and Kate Croser, said they did not know the details of the charges but suspected they related to scenes where Ms Vafamehr appears with a shaved head and no headscarf.

Shot entirely in Tehran and directed by an Iranian-Australian, Granaz Moussavi, the film criticises the Islamic republic's hardline policies through the story of a young Iranian actress whose stage work is banned by the authorities.

"What I wanted to do in my film is to focus on ordinary middle-class, urban people," Ms Moussavi told The Australian newspaper. "They are not seen, not heard and they haven't been captured on film".

The producers of the low-budget, independent movie said they had obtained all the necessary permits from the Iranian authorities to shoot in Tehran.

The film, banned in Iran, was never meant for release in the Islamic republic, the producers added.

Its circulation on Tehran's black market was "totally outside the control" of the company.

The producers stressed that Ms Vafamehr's role was limited to acting "and she was not in any other way involved in the behind-the-scenes filmmaking".

A spokesman for Australia's foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, said his government "condemns the use of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" and was deeply concerned by Ms Vafamehr's plight. Her fate is also likely to concern Mr Ahmadinejad - for different reasons.

He is no liberal but has infuriated influential hardline Iranian clerics by speaking out against the tough implementation of the dress code for women, which is unpopular with voters.

Mr Aref shows no sign of letting the Iranian president off the hook.

The student told an opposition website yesterday that his sentence and flogging were "illegal".

"Every time Ahmadinejad goes to New York, he boasts of Iran as the world's most free country. But here, in my own country, I was whipped in the most savage manner possible for insulting him," Mr Aref told Rahesabz.com.

He said his flogging stemmed from an open letter to the president after his fiercely disputed re-election two years ago. The missive complained about "catastrophic" university purges and was deemed to have failed to address the president with due respect.

Mr Aref was also given a lifetime ban from working as journalist or membership of any political party.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae