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Iranian rapper receives death sentence for songs criticizing the establishment

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In Iran, a popular rapper whose fiery lyrics helped galvanize an antigovernment movement among young people has been sentenced to death.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SUMMERS: Toomaj Salehi was charged with corruption on Earth for his rap songs criticizing the Iranian establishment. He is one of many artists, activists and journalists recently swept up by the hard-line government's crackdown on dissent. NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The charges against Toomaj Salehi stem back to October 2022, when he released rap music and videos supporting widespread protests that swept through Iran after the death and custody of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested for not wearing a headscarf. Salehi was arrested, his trial held behind closed doors, and there were reports of abuse. He was given a six-year sentence. That was overturned by the Supreme Court. Tara Sepehri Far, senior Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch, says the experience didn't slow Salehi down.

TARA SEPEHRI FAR: Upon his release, he published videos speaking about the abuse he endured and was still very outspoken on social media. In less than a month, he was rearrested again.

NORTHAM: This time, the 33-year-old Salehi was handed the death sentence. That sparked condemnation from many governments, including the U.S. Here's deputy State Department spokesman Vedant Patel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VEDANT PATEL: We're talking about someone who has already faced torture and other harsh treatments in detention. This is just another example of the Iranian regime's horrific and pervasive human rights abuses.

NORTHAM: Holly Dagres, an Iran specialist at the Atlantic Council, says the court's decision will quiet a voice that has provoked and scared the government and resonated with many Iranians.

HOLLY DAGRES: The words he was saying were very much the feelings of so many Iranians, and that's why his music resonates so much - is that there's just so much pain and hopelessness amongst the people of Iran.

NORTHAM: Dagres says it took years for Salehi to record his music. A lot of producers didn't want to work with him because they were worried about being arrested for producing such music. Dagres says Salehi's first hit was called "Rat Hole," where he criticized regime apologists.

DAGRES: And he was telling them to buy a rat hole with the money that they had received propping up the Islamic Republic. And so when that song dropped, people were so shocked by the lyrics that they actually started questioning him on social media - is this guy really in Iran?

NORTHAM: Salehi ended up doing an Instagram Live to prove he was in Iran. Human Rights Watch Tara Sepehri Far says while Salehi's case has made international news because of his death sentence, many other artists in Iran are feeling pressure as well.

FAR: The leadership has felt insecure about the high level of dissent in the country for a while. And, for them, popularity is synonym to ability to mobilize. Several other singers - rappers, singers, directors and other public figures have also been picked up by authorities because, at this point, I think, for them, anyone who carries weight among the dissident can be a potential threat.

NORTHAM: It's unclear what impact Salehi's death will have on the activist movement in Iran - propel it or push it further underground. Salehi's lawyers are appealing the death sentence.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF STORMZY SONG, "FIRE + WATER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.

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