Dissident Iranian rapper Toomaj has death sentence overturned

Iranian dissident rapper Toomaj Salehi had his death sentence overturned by the Iranian Supreme Court this week in what his lawyers have deemed a victory for human rights in Iran.

Salehi had become a key voice of anti-government dissent in Iran, strongly criticizing the repressive nature of the Iranian regime through his musical output and social media posts. In October 2022, as fervent demonstrations gripped Iran following the death of a young girl, Mahsa Amini in morality police custody, Salehi threw his support behind the protest movement.

Salehi has claimed he was tortured and placed in solitary detention after being initially arrested in October 2022 for his involvement in the protest movement. After being briefly released from prison in 2023, Salehi was re-arrested for “making false claims and spreading lies,” according to Iranian judiciary news agency Mizan. He was then sentenced to death in May this year. A lower court in the central city of Isfahan found him guilty of the crime of “corruption on earth,” issuing the maximum punishment of death.

On Saturday, his lawyer Amir Raesian broke the news of the reversal in a post on X, saying that the Iranian Supreme Court had “avoided irreparable judicial error” and overturned Salehi’s death sentence this week. In its judgment, Iran’s highest court found previous prison sentences handed down to Salehi to be “in excess of legal punishment.”

The news was welcomed by the campaign group Index on Censorship which has lobbied strongly for the rapper’s release and worked closely with a team of international human rights lawyers based in London’s Doughty Street Chambers to reverse his death sentence.

“It [the judgment] is a clear demonstration of the injustice of the lower court decision, and we are delighted that Salehi no longer faces the threat of execution. The Supreme Court found that the death sentence delivered to Salehi was excessive and failed to comply with Iranian law,” the group said in a statement Saturday.

Salehi’s case will now referred back to the lower court in Isfahan for re-sentencing, Index On Censorship said, decrying the prospect of any further jail time for the rapper.

“Even a shorter period of imprisonment would be an injustice: Salehi has done nothing other than to call for his, and other Iranians’, fundamental rights to be respected,” the group added.

London-based human rights lawyer Caoilfhionn Gallagher who is the international counsel for the Salehi family said it was “not enough” that his life had been “spared” by the Iranian authorities. Gallagher who alongside a team of colleagues filed an urgent appeal to the UN regarding Salehi’s case back in May, called once again for his “unconditional” release.

“We urge the international community to keep the pressure up at this critical time, to secure Salehi’s freedom and hold Iran to account for its egregious violations of international human rights law,” Gallagher said in the Index On Censorship statement.

The campaign to secure Salehi’s release has won support from high-profile voices across the globe. The Recording Academy which organises the Grammy Awards, put out a statement in April saying it was “deeply troubled by the recent news regarding Toomaj Salehi.”

“No artist anywhere should have to fear for their life or livelihood when expressing themselves through their art,” the statement added.

British business magnate Richard Branson was also among those to call for Salehi’s release, calling it “impossible to listen to Toomaj’s music, read his lyrics, and not be deeply touched by his message.”

At home in Iran, over 300 Iranian musicians signed a collective statement conveying their opposition to the rapper’s death sentence, describing him as “a champion of the righteous aspirations of an entire generation of Iranians.”

Index on Censorshop CEO Jemimah Steinfeld said she hoped the decision would allow Salehi to “seek the medical treatment he needs and continue his vital work.”

Claudia Bennett, a legal and programs officer at the Human Rights Foundation, called the rapper’s case “emblematic of the brutality of dictatorships.”

“They use arbitrary detention to silence dissidents and those advocating for democracy and human rights. Toomaj’s crime was singing a song and posting on social media. Something that we in democracies take for granted,” she added.

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