“It was someone’s crime that his hair was blowing in the wind. Someone’s crime was to be bold and clever.”
These lyrics could cost Iranian rap artist Toomaj Salehi his life. In any other country he could have easily gone on about the day-to-day problems of his countrymen without consequence.
But since he lives in Iran, Salehi’s fate is completely different.
The 32-year-old dissident underground rapper was violently arrested last Saturday along with two of his friends, his uncle said, and is now facing charges punishable by death, according to Iranian state media.
About 14,000 people have been arrested in Iran, including journalists, activists, lawyers and educators, in protests that have rocked the country since September, according to a senior United Nations official.
The unrest was sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman who died on September 16 after being arrested by “morality police” and taken to a “re-education center” for allegedly not wearing a hijab. properly
“I woke up at two in the morning with a phone call from Toomaj’s friend saying ‘our whereabouts have been leaked,'” Salehi’s uncle Eghbal Eghbali told CNN in an interview. “Since then we have been concerned about what happened to Toomaji.”
Eghbali says he learned through Salehi’s friends that about 50 people broke into his nephew’s residence that morning in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province in southwestern Iran.
The rapper is accused of “propagandistic activity against the government, cooperation with hostile governments and the creation of illegal groups with the aim of creating insecurity in the country,” state IRNA said, citing the Esfahan provincial judiciary.
Salehi’s uncle said that his nephew is currently being held in a prison in the city of Isfahan, and that he has information that he was tortured. Salehi is a resident of Shahin Shahr, 20 km north of Isfahan.
“We still don’t know anything about Toomaj’s health condition. The family has tried very hard to hear his voice, but no one has given us any information about Toomaj,” he said. “We don’t know if Toomaj and his friends are alive or not.”
Salehi’s friends, boxing champion Mohammad Reza Nikraftar and kickboxer Najaf Abu Ali, who were arrested with him over the weekend, have also not been heard from since, Eghbali said.
“The defendants played a key role in creating, inviting and encouraging riots in Isfahan province and the city of Shahin Shahr,” said Seyyed Mohammad Mousavian, spokesman for the Judiciary in Isfahan province, according to IRNA.
After his arrest, a short video clip of what appears to be a blindfolded Saleh appeared on the state-backed news agency, the Young Journalists Club (YJC). Salehi appears to have been forced to express remorse for his remarks on social media.
Salehi’s uncle was adamant that the man in the video was not his nephew, adding that the government had political motives for releasing the short clip. Eghbali also rejects the government’s claim that his nephew was on the run at the time of his arrest.
“Absolutely not,” Eghbali said. “Since we are where Toomaj lived or where we are in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province, we basically have no road to the border. This is a very crackbrained claim. Anyone who knows the geography of Iran will not believe this claim.’
Since the start of nationwide protests in mid-September, Salehi, who IRNA said was also arrested in September 2021, has called on Iranians to protest against the government.
“None of us have blood of a different color,” Salehi posted on Instagram. “Don’t forget our amazing unity and don’t let division arise between us, in this bloody and sad sky.”
Salehi, who is of Bakhtiari ethnic origin, has long spoken about Iran’s multi-ethnic makeup, promoting unity among Iranians of different ethnic backgrounds.
“Stay with us, we’ve been by your side for years,” Salehi says in the song “Meydoone jang,” which he translates as “The Battlefield.”
“It is not enough to be rebellious, we have revolutionary roots. Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, Turkmen, Mazandari, Sistani, Baluch, Talysh, Tatar, Azeri, Kurd, Gilaki, Lor, Farsi and Qashqai, we are a union of rivers: we are the sea”.
A few days before his arrest, Salehi posted videos of himself standing next to street protesters on Instagram. Since then, his fans, Iranians in the diaspora, as well as musicians and activists, have called for his release.
“A lot of rappers have come out and supported him,” Iranian rapper, songwriter and activist Erfan Paydar told CNN. “Toomaj’s courage to protest in the street encouraged others to come out and speak out and made people think, ‘If he’s willing to go out there and not be afraid, maybe we shouldn’t be.'”
Paydar said Salehi had recently shared a message with his trusted friends that would be released when he was arrested. “You will advance according to my operation. You are my most trusted person,” the message reads.
“The priority is students and staff, you will cover all calls for protest, you will not support any party or group, do not write much about the prisoners unless their situation worsens and they have no voice. Concentrate on attack, not defense.’
Security forces have arrested several musicians and artists, including two other rappers who took part in the protests: Emad Ghavidel from Rasht and Kurdish rapper Saman Yasin from Kermanshahe.
Ghavidel was released on bail and described in an Instagram post how he was tortured and had his teeth knocked out. Yasin was subjected to severe mental and physical torture during his time in custody, according to Hengaw, and was sentenced to death in a sham trial.
“Toomaj’s mother was a political prisoner,” Salehi’s uncle, who lives in Germany, told CNN. “She passed away a long time ago… if my sister was still alive, she would become the voice of Toomaj. I am the voice of Toomaj. Same as many on the street [in Iran] They are the voice of Toomaj.’
Since Mahsa Amini’s death in custody, protesters across Iran have rallied over a variety of grievances with the regime. Meanwhile, Iranian authorities have stepped up efforts to end the uprising. About 1,000 people have been charged with taking part in protests in Tehran province, state news agency IRNA reported last week.
The trials against the accused will be heard in public in the coming days, IRNA said, citing Ali Al-Qasi Mehr, the chief judge of Tehran province.
Iranian media said last weekend that the trials of several protesters had begun last week.