“Someone’s crime was that his hair flowed in the wind. Someone’s crime was that he was brave and outspoken.”
These lyrics could cost Iranian rap artist Toomaj Salehi his life. In any other country he could have easily rapped 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 violently 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.
Up to 14,000 people have been arrested in Iran, including journalists, activists, lawyers and educators during the 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, the 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman who died on September 16 after being arrested by “morality police” and taken to a “re-education center” allegedly for not wearing the hijab correctly
“I woke up at two in the morning to 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 has happened to Toomaj.”
Eghbali says he learned from Salehi’s friends later that morning that about 50 people stormed his nephew’s residence in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province in southwestern Iran.
The rapper is accused of “anti-government propaganda activity, cooperation with hostile governments and forming illegal groups with the intention of creating insecurity in the country,” state-run IRNA said, citing the judiciary in Isfahan province. .
Salehi’s uncle said his nephew is currently being held in a prison in the city of Isfahan and has information that he was tortured. Salehi is a resident of Shahin Shahr, about 20 km north of Isfahan.
“We still don’t know anything about Toomaj’s health condition. The family has tried hard to even hear his voice, but no one has given us any information about Toomaj,” he said. “We don’t even know if Toomaj 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 not been heard from since, Eghbali said.
“The accused played a key role in creating, inviting and encouraging the riots in Isfahan province and Shahin Shahr city,” said a spokesman for the judiciary in Isfahan province, Seyyed Mohammad Mousavian, according to IRNA.
After his arrest, a short video clip emerged of what appears to be a blindfolded Salehi at the state-backed news agency, the Young Journalists Club (YJC). Salehi appears to be under duress and expresses remorse for the comments he made on social media.
Salehi’s uncle claimed that the man in the video was not his nephew, adding that the government had political goals in 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. “Because where Toomaj lived or where we are in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province, we basically have no road to the border. That’s a very clueless statement. Anyone who knows the geography of Iran will not believe such a statement.”
Since the start of the nationwide protests that began in mid-September, Salehi, who according to IRNA 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. “Do not forget our incredible togetherness and do not allow them to create division between us, in this bloody and sad sky.”
Salehi, who is of Bakhtiari ethnic origin himself, has long been vocal about Iran’s multi-ethnic makeup, encouraging unity among Iranians of different ethnicities.
“He’s with us, we’ve been by your side for years,” Salehi rapped on his song “Meydoone jang” which translates to “The Battlefield.”
“It is not enough to be rebels, we have revolutionary roots. Arabic, Assyrian, Armenian, Turkoman, Mazandari, Sistani, Baluch, Talish, Tartar, Azeri, Kurdish, Gilaki, Lor, Farsi and Qashqai, we are the unity of the rivers: we are the sea.”
Days before his arrest, Salehi posted videos of himself alongside street protesters on Instagram. Since then, his supporters, 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 bravery to protest in the streets encouraged others to come out and speak and made people think, ‘if he’s willing to come out and he’s not afraid, maybe we shouldn’t be.'”
Paydar said Salehi recently shared a message with his trusted friends that he should be released if he is arrested. “You will be under my operation. You are my most trusted person,” the message reads.
“The priority is with students and workers, you will cover all protest calls, you will not support any party or collective, do not write much about prisoners if it does not worsen their condition and they do not have a voice. Focus on offense not defense.”
Security forces have detained several musicians and artists, including two other rappers who were involved in the protests: Emad Ghavidel from Rasht and Kurdish rapper Saman Yasin from Kermanshah.
Ghavidel was released on bail and described in an Instagram post how he was tortured and had his teeth broken. According to Hengaw, Yasin was subjected to severe mental and physical torture during his time in prison, and was sentenced to death in a mock trial.
“Toomaj’s mother was a political prisoner,” Salehi’s uncle, who lives in Germany, told CNN. “She died a long time ago… if my sister was still alive, she would become the voice of Toomaj. The same as I am the voice of Toomaj. The 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 united around a range of grievances with the regime. Meanwhile, Iranian authorities have stepped up efforts to end the uprising. Around 1,000 people have been charged in Tehran province for their alleged involvement in the protests, state news agency IRNA reported last week.
The defendants’ trials will be heard in public over the next few days, IRNA said, citing Ali Al-Qasi Mehr, chief judge of Tehran province.
Iranian media said last weekend that trials for several protesters had begun the previous week.