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Iran: rapper Toomaj Salehi, freedom or life

“Who is the cause of pain and blood? / Your flag is wherever you let the money go / (.

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Iran: rapper Toomaj Salehi, freedom or life

“Who is the cause of pain and blood? / Your flag is wherever you let the money go / (...) You are all corrupt.” The verses of rapper Toomaj Salehi fly like so many arrows fired against the Iranian regime. On April 24, these words, taken from his most famous song Soorakh Moosh, but also all his other rap pamphlets addressed to the authorities of the Islamic Republic, earned the artist the death penalty. A sentence worthy of what this 33-year-old Iranian, who has become the voice of the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement, represents.

Since the wave of uprising triggered after the death of Mahsa Amini - this Kurd who died at the hands of the moral police because she wore the Islamic veil incorrectly - tens of thousands of people have been arrested for their opposition to the regime, including nine were sentenced to death according to NGOs. Will Toomaj Salehi, 33, be the tenth? The Isfahan Judicial Authority found him guilty of "corruption on earth", the most serious charge, as well as spreading "lies on the internet", "propaganda against the system" and incitement “to commit violent acts”. However, his fate is not completely sealed. Since he reportedly expressed remorse, his sentence could be commuted to life in prison. One of his lawyers, Amir Raisian, expressed his desire to appeal.

This judgment is the culmination of judicial relentlessness. Toomaj, from the Bakhtiari tribe in the west of the country, was immersed in a spirit of protest from an early age. His father, for opposing the regime, served 8 years in prison. His mother died of cancer when he was 12. In the Isfahan region, where residents have particularly suffered from the war against neighboring Iraq, the impoverishment of his family is accompanied by a social decline. As a teenager, Toomaj studied mechanical engineering and joined his father's workshop in the suburbs of Isfahan, where he forged metal parts.

At the same time, the young scholar began to write verses, poetry or rap. At 26, he launched his career as a rapper in earnest. In the land of the mullahs where contemporary music is considered “satanic” and arrests of singers are common, rapping is an act of rebellion. Toomaj doubles this challenge with new, outspoken texts. In Persian, he chronicles political repression, religious pressure, and the corruption of the authorities, in direct, sometimes vulgar terms. “You are used to cowering,” he proclaims in reference to the rigorist Islam imposed by the mullahs, “prostrate yourself until your stomach fills with gas.” On the platforms of YouTube, Spotify and SoundCloud, young people bypass VPN censorship to listen to it.

In 2021, a song establishes his notoriety. In Soorakh Moosh, literally “mouse hole”, Toomaj calls out to the “leader of the Islamic Republic” and spits his anger at the repression of demonstrations (those against the increase in the price of fuel, in 2019 and 2020). They caused 1,500 deaths according to an investigation by the Reuters agency. “Your horizon is full of blood and anger / Corpses of old, young and children / Your whole past is dark / The government has taken the light from your eyes.” For the rapper, those who are not outraged are complicit. “There is no blank vote. There is no neutrality in the fight,” he sings. “If you mind your own business, while they take the lives of young people [...], you are a traitor.”

At a time when mobilized rappers are living in exile, Toomaj Salehi, “the bravest rapper in the world,” as the Times calls him, is the only one left. “Many love him because he is the voice of the people on the street. He promised them that he would hold on for them,” Justina, a friend of the rapper with whom she performed the song “Pichak” in July 2022, told France 24, and who herself lives in Sweden. “Toomaj says he wants to give courage through his songs. And he lives up to his promise,” confirms Omid, a 33-year-old Iranian, to Le Figaro. “A young man supporting women is crazy in Iran,” adds Nadereh*, 21, a resident of the province of Guilan, and one of the women who has been going out in the street without a veil for several months. . “Many singers did nothing during the protest. Toomaj was very courageous. While he had his audiences, his fans, and he was not obliged to resist.

His clips are as clear as his words. In Faal's, a man in black, with a hidden face, embodies the regime. In front of him, the singer dressed in white chants his contempt for corruption. All under a title in reference to the famous poet Hafez, whose work in the 14th century was associated with a divination ritual now anchored in Iranian culture. “While mobilizing classical poetic and literary traditions, Toomaj becomes the spokesperson for working-class neighborhoods,” explains Franco-Iranian sociologist Azadeh Kian. “He attacks reformists as much as conservatives. His message: whether you are one or the other, hide in “mouse holes” because society will soon dislodge you.” In September 2021, Toomaj was arrested for the first time, then released on bail.

In October 2022, while many cities in Iran resonated with the cry of “Woman, life, freedom” after the death of Mahsa Amini, he was arrested again. The artist, who then had 500,000 subscribers on Instagram and 380,000 on Twitter, was criticized in particular for an interview with Canadian media where he claimed to aspire to "a country where the moral police could not kidnap you in the middle of the street, where agents of the country would not have the right to commit rape or sexual assault.

A few weeks after his arrest, Iranian media published a video of him sitting on the ground, blindfolded. The rapper confesses to regretting his comments against the Iranian regime. For his supporters, there is no doubt that these false confessions are made under threat. In fact: when almost a year later he was released on bail, the artist immediately shot a video to tell his fans about his conditions of detention. “They hit me in the face, so hard that when I put my hands up to protect my face, they broke my fingers,” he says in front of the camera, his face looking thin. However, he ends with a message of hope. “I hope better days will come. I think we can build a beautiful Iran together.” Two weeks later, Toomaj was arrested again, this time for “lies” against the government.

Since April 27, the young Iranian has been completely isolated. According to his relatives, he was deprived of all telephone contact, a right generally granted to political prisoners once a week. The authorities cited the excessive media coverage of his conviction.

After his death sentence, many voices around the world came to the singer's defense. In France, the Quai d'Orsay "vigorously" condemned this court decision "which is in addition to the numerous other death sentences and unjustifiable executions linked to the fall 2022 demonstrations in Iran." In a collective column published in Le Monde, artists, writers and human rights activists called on Emmanuel Macron to apply pressure. In the United States, Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, denounced the conviction of an artist whose “voice amplifies the aspirations of the Iranian people and all those reduced to silence by the regime”.

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