“It was someone’s crime that her hair was blowing in the wind. Someone’s crime was that he or she was brave and outspoken.
These lyrics could cost Iranian rap artist Toomaj Salehi his life. In any other country, he could easily be rapping about the everyday problems his countrymen face without consequence.
But because he lives in Iran, Salehi’s fate is quite different.
The 32-year-old dissident underground rapper was forcibly arrested last Saturday along with two of his friends, his uncle said, and now faces charges of crimes punishable by death, according to Iranian state media.
About 14,000 people in Iran have been arrested, including journalists, activists, lawyers and educators during protests that have rocked the country since September, according to a senior UN official.
The unrest was sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish woman from Iran who died on September 16 after being detained by the “morality police” and taken to a “re-education center” for allegedly not wearing her hijab correct.
“I woke up at two o’clock in the morning to a phone call from a friend of Tumaj’s who said ‘our location has been leaked,'” Salehi’s uncle Eghbal Eghbali said in an interview with CNN. “We’ve been worrying ever since about what happened to Tumai.”
Eghbali says he found out through Salehi’s friends later this morning that about 50 people attacked his nephew’s residence in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province, in southwestern Iran.
The rapper is accused of “propaganda activity against the government, cooperation with hostile governments and forming illegal groups with the intention of creating insecurity in the country,” state-run IRNA reported, citing the judiciary of Isfahan province.
Salehi’s uncle said that his nephew is currently being held in a prison in the city of Isfahan and that there are reports that he has been tortured. Salehi is a resident of Shaheen Shahr, about 20 kilometers north of Isfahan.
“We still don’t know anything about Tumai’s health. The family tried very hard to even hear his voice, but no one has given us any information about Tumai,” he said. “We don’t even know if Tumai and his friends are alive or not.”
Salehi’s friends who were arrested with him over the weekend, boxing champion Mohammad Reza Nikraftar and kickboxer Najaf Abu Ali, have also been missing since then, Eghbali said.
“The accused played a key role in creating, inciting and encouraging riots in Isfahan province and in the city of Shaheen Shahr,” Isfahan provincial judiciary spokesman Seyed Mohammad Mousaviyan said, according to IRNA.
After his arrest, a short video of what appeared to be a blindfolded Salehi appeared on the state-backed news agency, the Young Journalists Club (YJC). Salehi appears to be under duress, expressing remorse for remarks he made on social media.
Salehi’s uncle was adamant that the man in the video was not his nephew, adding that the government had political goals in releasing the short clip. Egbali also rejected the government’s claim that his nephew was on the run at the time of his arrest.
“Absolutely not,” Egbali said. “Because where Toomaj lived or where we are in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province, we basically have no road to the border. This is a very crazy statement. Anyone who knows the geography of Iran will not believe such a statement.
Since the start of nationwide protests that began in mid-September, Salehi, who according to IRNA was also detained in September 2021, has been calling on Iranians to protest against the government.
“None of us have blood of a different color,” Salehi wrote on Instagram. “Don’t forget our amazing union and don’t let them create division between us, in this bloody and sad paradise.”
Salehi, himself of Bakhtiari ethnicity, has long rapped about Iran’s multi-ethnic makeup, promoting unity among Iranians of different ethnic origins.
“Stand with us, we’ve been by your side for years,” Salehi raps in his song “Meydoone jang,” which translates to “Battlefield.”
“It is not enough to be rebels, we have revolutionary roots. Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians, Turkmens, Mazandars, Sistani, Baluchis, Talish, Tartars, Azeris, Kurds, Gilaks, Lors, Persians and Qashqais, we are the unity of the rivers: we are the sea.’
Days before his arrest, Salehi posted videos on Instagram of himself with protesters in the street. Since then, his fans, Iranians in the diaspora, as well as musicians and activists, have been calling for his release.
“A lot of rappers came out and supported him,” Iranian rapper, songwriter and activist Erfan Paidar told CNN. “Toomaj’s courage to protest in the streets encouraged others to come out and speak and made people think that ‘if he’s willing to get out there and isn’t afraid, then maybe we shouldn’t be.'”
Paidar said Salehi had recently shared a message with trusted friends that was supposed to be released in case he was arrested. “You will move forward according to my operation. You are my most trusted person,” the message read.
“The priority is with the students and the workers, you will cover all the calls for protests, you will not support any party or group, you will not write much about the prisoners unless their condition worsens and they have no voice.” Concentrate on offense, not defense.”
Security forces have arrested several musicians and artists, including two other rappers involved in protests – Emad Gavidel from Rasht and Kurdish rapper Saman Yassin from Kermanshah.
Gavidel was released on bail and described in an Instagram post how he was tortured and had his teeth knocked out. According to the Norway-based Kurdish human rights group Hengaw, Yassin was subjected to severe mental and physical torture during his detention and charged with a crime that could lead to a death sentence in a sham trial.
“Tumai’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 have become the voice of Toomaj. Same as I am the voice of Toomaj. The same as many who are on the street [in Iran] are the voice of Tumai.
Following Mahsa Amini’s death in custody, protesters in Iran have rallied around a range of grievances against the regime. Meanwhile, Iranian authorities are stepping up their efforts to end the uprising. About 1,000 people have been charged in Tehran province for their alleged involvement in the protests, state news agency IRNA reported last week.
The trials of the accused will be heard in public in the coming days, IRNA said, citing Ali Al-Qasi Mehr, chief judge of Tehran province.
Iranian media reported last weekend that the trials of several demonstrators had begun last week.