Iran: Popular Rapper Sentenced to Death for Dissent

    (Beirut) – An Iranian court has issued a death sentence to the imprisoned popular rapper Toumaj Salehi on speech-related charges, Human Rights Watch said today. The legal proceedings and sentence against Salehi, 33, are a cruel and outrageous assault on fundamental freedoms and the right to a fair trial.

    Amir Raeesian, Saheli’s lawyer, told the Shargh media outlet on April 24, 2024, that Branch 1 of Isfahan’s Revolutionary Court had sentenced his client to death on the charge of “corruption on earth.” In November 2023, Iran’s Supreme Court struck down Salehi’s six-year prison sentence related to this case, referred the case back to the court of first instance, and released him on bail. Iranian security forces rearrested Salehi 12 days later.

    “Iran’s revolutionary court judges act like they are empowered to assault citizens’ basic rights and make a mockery of any existing legal safeguards,” said Tara Sepehri Far, senior Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Toumaj Salehi’s outrageous verdict is just latest manifestation of Iran’s brutal justice system. He should be released immediately.”

    On October 30, 2022, the authorities violently arrested Salehi, a musician and vocal critic of the government, amid protests following the death in morality police custody of Kurdish-Iranian woman Mahsa Jina Amini the previous month. The authorities held Salehi in solitary confinement and brought multiple charges against him including “corruption on earth,” a vague charge that can carry the death penalty. The Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) reported that government security forces beat Salehi in custody.

    On July 10, 2023, Branch 1 of Isfahan’s Revolutionary Court ruled that the threshold for the “corruption on earth” charge against Salehi had not been substantiated, and instead sentenced him to six years in prison under article 286 of the Islamic Penal Code. Article 286 punishes crimes against national security or disruption of public order on a large scale with up to five years in prison or a death sentence if it meets the threshold of “corruption on earth.”

    On November 18, Raeesian told Shargh that Salehi had been released on bail after the court struck down the sentence and referred the case back to the court of first instance. Upon his rearrest on November 30, the authorities opened a new case against him for accusing his interrogators of abuse in a video published online. On January 1, HRANA reported that Salehi had been sentenced to one year in prison and a two-year travel ban as punishment in the new case.

    On April 18, Branch 1 of Isfahan’s Revolutionary Court held a new trial for Salehi. Raeesian said that the authorities added charges in the case, and the court ultimately convicted Salehi and sentenced him to death for the “corruption on earth” charge. Raeesian alleged that the ruling had significant legal errors, including contradicting the supreme court verdict. He said that they will appeal the verdict.

    Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because it is inherently cruel and irreversible. 

    Since the crackdown against protests, Iran’s judicial authorities have drastically increased the use of vaguely defined national security charges against protesters that carry the death penalty, including for destroying public property. Following grossly unfair trials in which many defendants have not had access to legal counsel of their choice, the authorities issued 25 death sentences in connection to the protests. As of April 2024, the government has executed eight who were convicted in connection to the protests The Supreme Court has overturned another 11 death penalty convictions.

    Among those arrested during the protests was a Kurdish-Iranian rapper, Saman Seyedi, known as “Yasin.” He was sentenced to death on “enmity against the state” charges, including for alleged “weapon possession and conspiracy to threaten national security,” but the Supreme Court struck down the sentence. On April 21, HRANA reported that Branch 15 of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court had sentenced Seyedi to five years in prison.

    “The Iranian government has made unfair courts a cornerstone of its vicious repression of popular dissent,” Sepehri Far said.

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