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Home > English > Imprisoned Dissident Rapper Toomaj Salehi, Voice of Iran’s Protests, Faces (...)

Imprisoned Dissident Rapper Toomaj Salehi, Voice of Iran’s Protests, Faces Possible Execution

Thursday 6 April 2023

Sources Close to Toomaj Urge International Community to Demand His Release Before Trial Begins

Imprisoned Unjustly Since October 2022, in Urgent Need of Medical Care

April 6, 2023 – The international community, including music and arts institutions as well as freedom of speech and expression organizations, should urgently call for the release from arbitrary imprisonment of dissident rapper Toomaj Salehi, who is widely considered the voice of Iran’s protest movement, said the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).

“Toomaj rapped about political and social issues that Iranian authorities have long tried to conceal from domestic and foreign audiences to ward off criticism of their repressive policies,” said CHRI Executive Director Hadi Ghaemi. “Toomaj took extreme personal risks by further exposing issues that the state wants to hide, like child labor and political repression, through his art.”

“For peacefully criticizing state policies through his music, and because he has a large audience inside Iran, Toomaj has been in jail since October 2022, facing charges that could carry the death penalty,” added Ghaemi.

“He is in urgent need of intense and coordinated international pressure for his freedom, as are the many other detainees and political prisoners in Iran,” said Ghaemi.

Widely revered inside Iran as an underground rapper who directly addressed the denial of human rights in the Islamic Republic, Salehi, 33, known among his fans by his first name and from the city of Shahin Shahr, Isfahan Province, has been detained in isolation from all other prisoners in the province’s Dastgerd Prison—in a high-security ward controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) intelligence organization—since October 31, 2022.

Facing Multiple Charges, Possible Death Sentence

In interviews with CHRI, sources close to Toomaj said the rapper required urgent medical treatment that cannot be provided from within the prison.

They also stressed the importance of international pressure for Salehi’s release before his trial begins—in which he was initially denied a lawyer of his choice, and denied the right to prepare a proper defense—due to the severity of the charges he’s facing, including one that carries the death penalty.

He has only been allowed to meet with his lawyers three times in the last five months, sources told CHRI.

“Toomaj always used to quote [the poet] Ahmad Shamlou’s famous words that “an artist must always be ‘above’ power, not ‘with’ power,” said a source with detailed knowledge of his case who requested anonymity for security reasons.

“I can confidently say that if it weren’t for the media and international pressure in the early days and weeks, Toomaj might not be alive today,” added the source, stressing that the support has since faded.

“Toomaj’s trial has not yet been held, so it is very important to act now before it starts,” the source said.

Toomaj was arrested after joining street protests that had erupted across the country in mid-September 2022 after Jina Mahsa Amini, 22, was killed in state custody following her arrest by the so-called “morality police” for her alleged improper hijab.

He had previously been detained in September 2021 and was released after 8 days.

After moving from one safe house to another, he was detained shortly after the Canadian Broadcasting Cooperation aired an interview with him in which he described what it’s like to live in Iran: “You are dealing with a mafia that is ready to kill the entire nation…in order to keep its power, money and weapons.”

Medical Treatment Urgently Needed
A screenshot of a video aired by Iranian state TV in which Toomaj, half his face covered by a blindfold, made a forced apology. Sources tell CHRI that his face was severely injured and that’s why the blindfold is so large, to cover evidence of trauma to his face

A screenshot of a video aired by Iranian state media, in which Toomaj, half his face covered by a blindfold, made a forced apology. Sources tell CHRI that his face was severely injured and that’s why the blindfold is so large, to cover evidence of trauma to his face.

State media then published a video purporting to show the rapper blindfolded, with bruising on his face, apologizing for his words.

Family members and supporters accused the authorities of torturing Salehi in prison to force him to make a false confession.

Directed by Islamic Republic intelligence agents, state media has a documented history of aiding the country’s intelligence and security apparatus by broadcasting false forced “confessions” that have been extracted under torture, in order to defame political prisoners in the public eye.

Toomaj is facing a charge that could carry the death penalty, “corruption on earth,” as well as charges that each carry 1-10 years of imprisonment: “propaganda against the state,” “formation and management of illegal groups with the aim of undermining national security,” “collaboration with hostile governments,” and “spreading lies and inciting violence through cyberspace and encouraging individuals to commit violent acts.”

His court date has not been set.

Call to Action

CHRI urges governments, UN bodies, organizations dedicated to promoting art, music, freedom of speech and expression, and other basic human rights, and concerned citizens worldwide to publicly demand Salehi’s freedom and publicize his case by sharing this article and signing a petition calling for Toomaj’s freedom.

Social media users can also produce content on their channels calling on others to join in sharing Toomaj’s story and demanding his freedom along with all other prisoners of conscience detained in Iran.

A sample caption: “Toomaj Salehi, a dissident rapper who spoke about social issues, has been unjustly detained in Iran since October 2022 under charges that could carry the death penalty.

Iranian authorities should #FreeToomaj and all prisoners of conscience who have been jailed for peacefully raising their voices.”


Following are two interviews CHRI conducted with sources who have detailed knowledge of Toomaj’s case.

Due to the Iranian authorities’ restriction of Toomaj’s contact with his family members and fears that he or his contacts in Iran could be further punished for speaking about his case, CHRI has concealed the sources’ identities.

The following interviews were initially conducted in Persian and have been translated into English below.

Interview 1

Toomaj had been threatened and pursued by [security] agents long before the protests began. Toomaj had always voiced his protest and never backed down from his stand. But he didn’t like to talk openly about the threats and security pressures because he believed that it could make many people afraid.

With the release of Toomaj’s first video after protests began [in Iran in September 2022], the threats started. He was taking part in street protests, and it was possible that he would be identified. At the same time, because he was being threatened and hounded, he was constantly moving around. Every day we were waiting for Toomaj’s arrest. He was constantly changing locations and escaping. I can say he changed his location seven or eight times to avoid being caught. In those days, I was in constant contact with Toomaj. He even left me a few voice messages during his escapes, explaining that his hideout had been exposed. If he didn’t message back within five minutes, it meant he had been arrested.

The last time we were in contact was on October 31, at 4:25 a.m. We were messaging when suddenly Toomaj went offline. After about half an hour, he messaged that his internet connection had suddenly been cut off and switched from 4G to E mode. Right there and then, we both quickly concluded that Toomaj’s [physical] location had probably been discovered, and agents were on their way to arrest him along with two friends. About 20 minutes later, he messaged that a black Peugeot with tinted windows had entered the alley, stopped briefly, and then left. Toomaj wrote that he guessed the car had come to check the location so they could return with more agents to arrest us. It was around 5 a.m. when our connection was completely cut off. Later, I found out that at the same time, 70 armed agents surrounded the house where Toomaj and his friends were staying in the village of Gerd Bisheh, in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province. They stormed the house and arrested everyone, even the caretaker. However, the caretaker was released a few days later.

After the arrest, Toomaj and his friends were transferred to the detention center in Boroujen and subjected to severe physical abuse. The next morning, they separated Toomaj from his two friends and took him to another location, probably a safe house. In those days, state media also publicized a video of Toomaj showing him on the ground at the time of his arrest, with visible injuries and blood on his face from physical abuse.

Held in Isolation in IRGC-Controlled Ward

It has been more than 150 days since Toomaj’s arrest on October 30, 2022. He has been held in solitary confinement in Ward 1-T, which is controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ intelligence organization in Isfahan’s Dastgerd Prison.

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