Iran Sentences Prominent Rapper to Death, Lawyer Says

A dissident rapper has been sentenced to death in Iran after releasing music in support of antigovernment demonstrations that rocked the country in 2022, according to his lawyer, in a case that has prompted global condemnation.

The rapper, Toomaj Salehi, 33, was one of the most prominent voices among those arrested over nationwide protests against Iran’s clerical rulers after the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, 22. Human rights organizations have been calling for Mr. Salehi’s release, saying that he has been tortured in prison and warning that he could face execution.

Amir Raesian, Mr. Salehi’s lawyer, told the Iranian reformist newspaper Shargh in an article published on Wednesday that a court in the central city of Isfahan had sentenced Mr. Salehi to death and that his client planned to appeal.

The office of the U.S. Special Envoy for Iran condemned the sentence, calling it another example of “the regime’s brutal abuse of its own citizens, disregard for human rights, and fear of the democratic change the Iranian people seek.”

Mr. Salehi was initially arrested in October 2022 for releasing music criticizing the government and backing the demonstrations ignited by the death of Ms. Amini in the custody of Iran’s morality police. He also posted videos on his Instagram account encouraging his followers to protest.

The Iranian authorities charged him that November with “spreading corruption on earth,” an offense that can carry the death penalty. U.N. experts said the court proceedings were held behind closed doors without Mr. Salehi’s lawyer present and expressed alarm about reports the artist had been tortured, citing reports of his broken nose and several broken fingers.

In April 2023, rights groups again said that Mr. Salehi — who was consistently denied access to legal representation — had been tortured in prison and required urgent medical assistance.

Mr. Salehi was sentenced three months later to over six years in prison by a court in Isfahan after a closed-door trial. He was also banned from producing music or singing for two years, according to a State Department document. Iran’s Supreme Court found issues with that ruling, and Mr. Salehi was released from prison in November 2023, only to be rearrested less than two weeks later and ultimately charged with “propaganda against the state,” according to U.N. experts.

The Isfahan court’s move to effectively ignore the Supreme Court and hand down a death sentence was “unprecedented,” Mr. Salehi’s lawyer told Shargh.

The Center for Human Rights in Iran, an independent advocacy group based in New York, said the death sentence was a “new low in Iran’s crackdown on dissent.”

“Toomaj’s imprisonment stems from his vocal advocacy against state oppression,” it said in a statement. “It is imperative that supporters of free speech and dissent unite to demand his immediate release.”

The State Department, which has described Mr. Salehi as a “political prisoner,” called the reports that a death sentence had been handed down “disturbing.”

“We’re talking about someone who has already faced torture and other harsh treatments in detention,” Vedant Patel, a State Department spokesman, told a news briefing on Wednesday.

Mr. Salehi was well known in Iran long before his imprisonment, rapping in Persian about injustice and inequality. In lyrics that resonated deeply with Iranian youth, he wrote about poverty, child labor and executions, while calling out the country’s clerics for corruption, state mismanagement and repression.

“The upper classes have a voice enough,” he once said in an Instagram video. “I think rap is the voice of the suffocated throats.”

He had his first big hit with “Rathole” in 2021, rapping about regime apologists in Iran and abroad. The lyrics upset Iran’s leaders: Mr. Salehi was arrested in September 2021. He was released on bail after fans and human rights organizations campaigned for his freedom.

The episode did not deter Mr. Salehi from pursuing his art: “Shall the pen that doesn’t write break. Behold what these people have suffered,” he wrote on social media that month.

When the antigovernment protests broke out in Iran in September 2022, Mr. Salehi filmed himself with the protesters and again used his lyrics to take aim at the country’s clerical leaders.

“We are the voice of the anger of people whose voice was silenced,” he rapped in “Battlefield,” which was released during the height of the demonstrations.

“We come to streets like ghosts and become a nightmare for the government,” the lyrics continue, in a music video interspersed with protest footage. “We see the light after this hell. Neither suppression nor law nor execution can stop us.”

The Iranian security forces ultimately killed hundreds of protesters and arrested tens of thousands in a broad crackdown. Since then, the Iranian authorities have carried out a string of executions after cursory trials on charges linked to the protests.

In a video caption posted on Instagram on Oct. 28 — two days before his initial arrest in 2022 — Mr. Salehi said, “This is a revolution.”

“Every step we take is necessary to reach our goal,” he wrote. “Join us!”

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