19 May 2024

Iranian rapper facing the death penalty after calling out Islamic Republic

11:03 am on 19 May 2024
Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi.

Toomaj Salehi is facing the death penalty in Iran. Photo: Instagram

By Nassim Khadem, ABC

In a country where criticising the government can get you killed, Toomaj Salehi has remained fearless.

The Iranian rapper from Isfahan cannot perform concerts or speak freely in his country, but he still gets hundreds of thousands of streams per song on his YouTube channel.

His music has been compared to that of other hip hop greats like Kendrick Lamar, all while producing and releasing songs in a country where rap is illegal.

While other Iranian artists use pseudonyms to avoid attracting the attention of the conservative regime, 33-year-old Salehi has never hidden his identity - even as he openly criticises the government for its human rights abuses.

His courage to speak out has won him supporters all over the world, including artists like Coldplay and Sting.

But it has also attracted the wrath of the Islamic Republic and landed him in prison, where he is currently facing the death penalty.

A figure of hope, and a target

Salehi's music - reportedly inspired by the late American artist Tupac Shakur, who also rapped about inequality and injustice - highlights what he sees as the Islamic Republic's failures and hypocrisies.

This coupled with his support for the #womenlifefreedom protests - sparked by the 2022 death in custody of Mahsa Jina Amini - has made Salehi a figure of hope for Iranians who want a free Iran, while also making him a target of the regime.

"Toomaj is ... trying to celebrate a world that should exist; an Iran that is free," says Nik Williams, a campaigner at the Index on Censorship, which is behind a global campaign to try and stop Salehi's execution.

"One where people are able to express themselves, can make art, can meet who they want, talk to who they want."

Mahsa Amini died after being arrested in Iran.

Mahsa Amini died in custody in 2022. Photo: Supplied

Salehi was born to working-class parents with ethnic roots in the Bakhtiari, which have a long history as tribal leaders and in holding influence in Persian politics.

He grew up in the central city of Isfahan, working as a mechanical engineer in a metalwork factory.

He comes from a family of activists. His father was reportedly one of thousands of leftists rounded up in the 1980s - as the revolutionary government took control of the country - and spent years behind bars. His mother was also detained briefly, according to media reports.

Salehi's older brother introduced him to hip hop, and by the time he was a teenager, he was writing his own lyrics.

At first, he was turned away from studios that didn't want to be associated with his overt politics, but as the protests across Iran gained momentum in the mid to late 2000s, songs like "Rathole" resonated and went viral.

Salehi calls out corruption and oppression in his songs. He exposes problems in Iranian society including growing poverty, the targeting and killing of protesters and state-sanctioned executions.

His 2021 song, 'Soorakh Moosh' (translated as 'Mouse Hole' or 'Rat Hole'), takes direct aim at the Islamic Republic, calling out what he labels as the regime's Western apologists with lyrics like:

"If you saw peoples' pain but looked away

If you saw the suppression of the oppressed but walked right past

If you did it out of fear or for your own interests

You're the hand of the tyrant, you're a criminal too..."

It continues:

"Hack journalists, tabloid reporters, court singers, find a mouse hole.

"Officer, thug, mercenary, executioner, find a mouse hole.

"Useful idiots, appointed officials, reformists, find a mouse hole.

"Crooks, NIAC [a US-based lobby group National Iranian American Council], look all around, grab all your dollars and buy a mouse hole."

Lyrics like these have earned Salehi support from many young people in Iran - some of whom have been taking to the streets calling for his release - as well as from diaspora Iranians. They have taken their message to social media, using the hashtag #FreeToomajSalehi.

Rally in support of Toomaj Salehi organized by numerous Iranian organizations in Paris, France, on April 28, 2024. The Iranian justice system has just sentenced him to death for being one of the leaders of the Woman Life Liberty movement. 
Rassemblement en soutien a Toomaj Salehi organise par de nombreuses organisations iraniens a Paris, France, le 28 avril 2024. La justice iranienne vient de le condamner a la peine de mort du fait d etre l un des leaders du mouvement Femme Vie Liberte. (Photo by Nicolas Rongier / Hans Lucas / Hans Lucas via AFP)

Salehi has become a figure of hope for those who want a free Iran. Photo: NICOLAS RONGIER

Salehi says he was tortured in prison

The police first arrested and charged Salehi with several offences in October 2022, after he made public statements in support of protesters.

In July 2023, he was sentenced to six years and three months in prison for his role in the 2022 protests.

He was briefly released on bail on November 18, 2023, after Iran's Supreme Court identified flaws in the sentence.

During his brief time out on bail, Salehi released a 14.5-minute video saying he was tortured and placed in solitary confinement for 252 days.

Salehi refuted state media reports that he "confessed" to the crimes he was accused of or that he "snitched" on others.

He says in the video that he was severely tortured at the time of his arrest.

"They broke my arms and my legs," he says.

"They were hitting my face and my head, so at first I tried to cover myself with my hands, and they broke my fingers."

Salehi also says that he was given a shot in the neck when he was arrested.

"One of the other political prisoners told me that the injection they gave me in my neck was most likely adrenaline so I wouldn't pass out so that I would be conscious during the time they were torturing me so I would feel the pain fully," he explains.

He also says that he did not receive proper medical care for broken bones and as a result cannot walk properly.

He was rearrested soon after this video, on 30 November.

A lower revolutionary court held a new trial that overturned the Supreme Court decision and added new charges.

Salehi was charged for "propaganda against the state" and "corruption on earth" and later sentenced to death.

Demonstrators gather around a burning barricade during a protest for Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's "morality police", in Tehran on September 19, 2022. - Fresh protests broke out on September 19 in Iran over the death of a young woman who had been arrested by the "morality police" that enforces a strict dress code, local media reported. Public anger has grown since authorities on Friday announced the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, in a hospital after three days in a coma, following her arrest by Tehran's morality police during a visit to the capital on September 13. (Photo by AFP)

Protests erupted in Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini. Photo: AFP

How Iran's authorities 'crush dissent'

His lawyers are appealing the decision, taking issue with the fact that a lower Isfahan Revolutionary Court reversed the Supreme Court's decision on Salehi's case.

In Iran, the death penalty is administered via hanging and there's often very little notice before it happens.

In an interview with the Shargh newspaper in Iran, on 24 April, one of Salehi's lawyers, Amir Raesian, argued that sentencing his client to death on the charge of "corruption of earth" did not comply with the Supreme Court's overturning of his original sentence.

Earlier this month, the Index on Censorship launched a petition calling for Salehi's "immediate and unconditional release" after years of "judicial harassment, imprisonment and torture". It has since been signed by more 100 artists, writers and musicians including Margaret Atwood, Sting and Coldplay.

The United Nations has separately called for his release.

"He's the perfect example of how music - popular culture - can really inspire and transform people," Nik Williams says.

"Just after he was released on bail [in 2021 after Salehi was arrested after the release of 'Mouse Hole'] he recorded a music video outside the very jail that he had previously just been in - a song in commemoration of the protesters who had lost their life during the Iran protests.

"He's always held the memory, and the hopes and ideals of protesters, people wanting to speak out, really close to his heart …which unfortunately has drawn the attention of the state authorities."

Nikita White, an international issues campaigner at Amnesty International - which has also been running a campaign to save Salehi - believes the regime has arrested him not just to silence him but to send a warning shot.

"They use executions as a way to stop people from protesting, from exercising their human rights to freedom of expression and assembly," White says, adding that the charge "corruption on earth" is serious but vague enough to mean anything Iran's authorities want it to.

Last year there were 853 executions in Iran - a 48 per cent increase from 2022, a 172 per cent increase from 2021, and the highest number recorded since 2015.

Iran's "killing spree" has continued into 2024, Amnesty says, with at least 95 recorded executions by 20 March, many related to drug offences but some in connection with the protests.

"It's a really chilling sign of the extent that the Iranian authorities will go to, to crush dissent."

Two Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) 
armed military personnel pose for a photograph in front of an Iran flag during a pro-government protest rally in southern Tehran, December 29, 2022. Pro-government protest rally held in support of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and in opposition to recent unrest following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 21-year-old Iranian-Kurd. (Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto) (Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP)

There were at least 95 recorded executions in Iran in the first three months of the year. Photo: AFP

Finding ways to speak

For 44 years, Iranian writers, journalists, singers, and filmmakers have navigated the murky line of subtly criticising the regime.

Many go underground and use pseudonyms to release work highlighting the regime's human rights abuses. If they choose to use their own name, to get past Iran's censors they use poetry and symbolism and often change their scripts.

Salehi has refused to censor himself.

Last year, the Index on Censorship recognised Salehi with the Freedom of Expression Art Award for his "unwavering commitment to using his craft as a weapon against injustice". Salehi, while incarcerated, donated his cash prize to victims of recent floods in Iran.

Williams says even before his arrest, Salehi was banned from performing concerts in Iran, but that there's a power in being overtly critical and cutting through.

"For a country that's been repressed so long that you've built in these ways of subtly critiquing, without overtly critiquing, there must be, I imagine, a lot of liberation in someone just being a lot more explicit," Williams says.

Salehi's uncle, Eghbal Eghbali, who lives in Germany, has not spoken to his nephew but says at one point he tried to convince his relatives to send him to live abroad.

Now he is calling on leaders in Europe and across the world to intervene.

"The Islamic Republic has to be boycotted by Europe, economically, trade wise and diplomatically," he says.

"Toomaj was the voice of young university students and now that [Iran's government] want to hang him, [the students can] be his voice. Remove the rope from [Salehi's] neck."

TEHRAN, IRAN - SEPTEMBER 21: Dozens of people stage a demonstration to protest the death of a 22-year-old woman under custody in Tehran Iran on September 21, 2022. Stringer / Anadolu Agency (Photo by STRINGER / ANADOLU AGENCY / Anadolu Agency via AFP)

Iranian authorities are taking a tougher stance against protesters. Photo: ANDALOU

'Glaring unlawfulness and injustice'

Protests in Iran go through waves, but to stop them spreading further, Iranian authorities are taking a tougher stance against protesters, especially high-profile ones like Salehi, who dare to challenge the regime.

And while Iran's government will argue that it has a fair judicial system and acts in accordance with the law, human rights organisations like Amnesty and others say the system is anything but fair, with sham trials and unjust executions.

Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the New York-headquartered Center for Human Rights in Iran, says Salehi's case "underscores the glaring unlawfulness and injustice of the Islamic Republic's judicial system".

"Not only was Toomaj imprisoned for participating in a peaceful protest, but now a lower court, acting as a wilful instrument of the state's security apparatus, has unlawfully sentenced him to death," he says.

"This grotesque manipulation of the judicial process aims to silence dissent."

This is happening alongside what Amnesty has called a "draconian campaign" by Iran's regime to enforce compulsory veiling laws against women.

Amnesty's Nikita White says it includes widespread surveillance of women and girls in public spaces. It follows a proposal for new laws that would increase prison terms and fines for defying Iran's mandatory veiling laws.

"There are thousands of women who've had their cars confiscated because they were driving without a headscarf and we hear reports of women who've been denied access to public places like banks, like public transport," White says.

"It really shows what the Iranian authorities are willing to do in their repression of women to crush this popular uprising that's been led by women."

And Salehi, she says, has been in support of Iran's women all along.

Fears that Salehi's health is deteriorating

Many fear that Salehi's health is deteriorating in prison.

He needed medical treatment after being tortured during his previous arrest - he said in his video that he wanted to get his broken teeth fixed - but because of his rearrest was not able to receive that treatment.

Still, despite the tough conditions Salehi faces, Williams holds hope for his release.

He notes the recent case of another rapper, Saman Seydi (also known as Yasin), a Kurdish singer-songwriter from Kermanshah who has faced torture during his initial 19 months in prison. On appeal, Seydi was given a five-year prison sentence instead of the death penalty.

"He shouldn't be in prison, but it is obviously better than a death sentence," Williams says.

It was one year ago when Iran's regime killed 30-year-old Majid Kazemi for his role in anti-government protests.

His cousin Mohammad Hashemi says "don't let them kill us" were Kazemi's last words, alongside Saleh Mirhashemi and Saeed Yaghoubi who were also arrested after participating in protests triggered by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini.

The words were scribbled on a crumpled paper before they were killed.

Hashemi worries that Iran's regime will continue killing protesters unless the international community takes stronger action.

"The Islamic Republic seeks more victims like Toomaj Salehi, Abbas Deris, Reza (Gholamreza) Rasaei and Mojahed (Abbas) Kourkouri (others who currently face execution for their role in the protests)," he says.

The Iranian diaspora is urging Australia's government to take action to stop "unjust executions in Iran", he adds, and to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) - the military arm of Iran's government - as a terrorist organisation as has been recommended by a recent Senate inquiry.

Salehi's music is driven by a desire for a better world, Nik Williams says, and "that's what people in Iran took to the streets for as well".

"And any regime that's threatened by that, I would argue, says more about them than it does the protesters."

This story was first published by the ABC.

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