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Quebec filmmaker wins customs fight over Iran artwork – but at a price

Montreal filmmaker Sadaf Foroughi has been fighting with customs officials over importing a traditional peepbox from Iran.


A Montreal filmmaker who had the centerpiece of her federally subsidized art installation intercepted and held back by customs officials enforcing Canadian sanctions against Iran has won the right to claim her cargo.

However, Sadaf Foroughi, an Iranian-born permanent resident, says she will now have to spend nearly $3,000 to get her traditional Iranian peep box – known as a shahre farang – out of the warehouse where it's being stored.

As part of a project subsidized by the Canada Council for the Arts, Mrs. Foroughi plans to project videos inside a traditional Iranian peep box, which is made of thin tin and has eye-level viewing ports and elaborate ornaments shaped like buildings with domed towers.

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But when it arrived at Montreal's Trudeau International Airport from Iran at the end of June, she was told it was being held back because of Canada's Special Economic Measures Regulations for Iran.

On July 17, Mrs. Foroughi told The Globe and Mail that Swissport Canada Handling Inc., the airport cargo handler that's warehousing the item, told her that they would be forced to turn the item over to customs to be destroyed in 30 days.

She also said that she was being charged $105 a day for storage.

"Unfortunately I can't pay. It's a lot for me," she said. "First I will write a letter to see if the government can pay for that or do something for me because I think I have to pay for nothing. It wasn't my fault."

In 2012, Ottawa suspended diplomatic relations with Tehran and expanded sanctions in 2013 to ban all imports from Iran as well as exports going there.

Vincent Valai, Mrs. Foroughi's lawyer, says that he received an e-mail from the Department of Foreign Affairs on July 30 that included a special permit signed by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, which will allow Mrs. Foroughi to claim the peep box.

Mr. Valai had argued that the peep box is a personal item that should be exempt from the sanctions.

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"It's good news for Mrs. Foroughi and a reasonable decision from Minister Baird, but I still believe that the artistic creation was a personal effect for non-commercial purposes therefore not a restricted product requiring a special ministerial permit," he said in an e-mail. "To avoid such cases in the future the Canadian government will need to review the sanctions regime and assess the impact on Canadian citizens, Canadian residents and Iranian civil population. Guidelines and interpretations bulletins will be necessary to avoid such incidents in the future."

As for the storage fees, Mr. Valai says that it will be up to the company and not the government as to whether or not they will charge Mrs. Foroughi.

"I hope that in light of what happened they'll waive the fees but it will not be up to the government, it will be a private entity who needs to make that decision," he said.

While she is happy that the government has granted her permission to retrieve the centerpiece, Mrs. Foroughi says that the whole situation has greatly delayed the timing of her art exhibit.

"Not only [do] I have a month of delay for exhibiting my art piece, but I also have to wait another fews days for my art to be released because of the $3,000 that I have to pay to cargo," she said, adding that she is also unsure of the condition of the peep box. "Maybe it is damaged because of humidity, so it need to be repaired."

John Babcock, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, said that the department cannot comment on permit applications for privacy reasons.

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"Whether or not a specific item counts as an exemption to our sanctions is subject to legal interpretation. The Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development cannot provide such legal advice to members of the public," he said.

"If the art is stopped at the border due to sanctions imposed under the Special Economic Measures Act (SEMA), the importer can apply to the Minister of Foreign Affairs under the Permit Authorization Order for an exception."

With a report from Tu Thanh Ha

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