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Iranian dissident rapper reportedly remains defiant under torture by regime

According to a source close to the Iranian rapper, Toomaj Salehi has reportedly been subjected to severe torture in prison after being abducted by regime forces over a month ago.

Liberal MP to raise Toomaj Salehi's case, and those involved, with federal government

A short-haired and bearded man in a black shirt smiles in front of photo collages of people's faces.
Iranian dissident rapper Toomaj Salehi talks to CBC News in a recent interview about what’s happening in his country. (Nahayat Tizhoosh/CBC)

For weeks, Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi has reportedly been subjected to severe torture in Isfahan prison after being abducted by regime forces over a month ago.

CBC News spoke to a source close to the rapper, who said they gathered information from within the prison. They said Toomaj, who is known professionally by his first name, is defiant and on at least one occasion began shouting anti-regime slogans; other cellmates reportedly joined in, leading to authorities isolating and beating the rapper.

The source, who CBC News has agreed not to identify given the ongoing violence targeting dissidents, said that when Toomaj was previously detained, he would rap some of his lyrics out loud from inside his jail cell. He was arrested in 2021 after releasing several music videos criticizing the Islamic Republic.

He was then arrested again Oct. 30 amid the ongoing protests and violent crackdowns in the country, as the regime has intensified efforts to silence dissent fuelled by the in-custody death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September.

In an exclusive interview with CBC News shortly before he was arrested, Toomaj emphasized that protests should continue peacefully until they grow large enough to overthrow the regime.

WATCH | Toomaj talked to CBC News in October, before his arrest:

Videos coming out of Iran a 'small picture' of what’s happening, says Toomaj

3 months ago
Duration 2:04
Iranian dissident rapper Toomaj Salehi talks to CBC News about what’s happening in his country.

The underground rapper was actively supporting the protests in Iran, releasing music, sending messages of support and even showing up on the streets himself. 

Following his recent arrest, the rapper was officially indicted on charges in late November; the most serious translates to "corruption on earth" — a charge that under Iran's Islamic Sharia law could carry a death sentence. 

The source said a previously planned charge of mohareb, or waging war against God, was left off Toomaj's indictment, potentially because of growing public pressure in support of him.

Toomaj's family has repeatedly called on Iran's judiciary to allow access to him. But relatives have not seen or spoken with him since he was abducted by regime forces in southwestern Iran.

The rapper's Twitter page, which has been run by a member of his team since his arrest, recently suggested that in addition to previous reports that Toomaj's leg and fingers were broken and his face damaged, he may now also be on a hunger strike.

Liberal MP, Iranians call for Toomaj's release

Liberal MP and chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ali Ehsassi says he intends to follow up on this case with the Canadian government, including submitting names of any individuals who dealt directly with Toomaj's case, including his interrogator, prison warden and judicial officials. 

"The international community must remain steadfast in shining the spotlight on the macabre travesty Mr. Toomaj Salehi has endured, demand that all legal charges against him be dropped unconditionally, and that he be released from detention immediately," Ehsassi told CBC News.

People hold placards bearing portraits of Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi, right, who was arrested in Iran in late October, and portraits of children, who were killed during the protests in Iran, during a support rally in Istanbul on Nov. 26, 2022. The family of Toomaj says his life is at risk after he went on trial behind closed doors. (Yasin Akgul/AFP via Getty Images)

Nearly 350,000 people had signed their names to an online petition started by Toomaj's family and supporters, calling for his release. The petition is to be delivered to Javaid Rehman, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Toomaj's fans and supporters have taken to social media to point out the rapper's birthday is Saturday, calling on protesters to keep his name alive and to join planned protests on Dec. 5, 6, and 7. 

Iranian courts do work of regime, experts says

More than 18,000 Iranians have been arrested and more than 400 killed in almost three months of popular protests, according to estimates from the activist news agency Hrana. 

Iran's judiciary has said it will hold public trials for about 1,000 people indicted as part of the unrest in the country. 

The chief justice of Isfahan province, Asadollah Jafari, who handed down Toomaj's indictment, said some of his charges will be tried in what is known as Islamic Revolutionary Courts.

Asadollah Jafari is the chief justice of Isfahan province, in central Iran, who handed down Toomaj Salehi's indictment last month. (Mehr News)

"In these cases, it's not about the judge. Usually, it's the security and intelligence forces that prepare case files. The judiciary hands down the sentences. It's dictated to them by the security apparatus," said Shahin Milani, a legal analyst at the U.S. based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.

Milani says, because Toomaj's case is high profile, it's likely going to be decided at a higher level than the judiciary. 

"Some person in Tehran or with the security apparatus. It might be someone from [Supreme Leader] Khamenei's office. We don't know," he said.

Early in the protests, 227 members of Iran's parliament called on the judiciary to act decisively against those arrested during the protests and to carry out the death penalty on those sentenced. The head of Iran's judiciary pledged to act "without leniency" in its crackdown on protests.

The notorious Revolutionary Courts, created to protect the Islamic Republic, typically try political prisoners and verdicts are often determined before trials take place, according to human rights experts.

"Most of these trials are brief affairs. No opportunity for proper defence is given," Milani said.

People wearing black hold a photo of the rapper Toomaj.
In this Instagram photo from Nov. 7, people in Toronto call for Toomaj's release at a protest organized by the group Iran Lovers. (PoeticJustice4Iran/Instagram)

Chief justice previously sanctioned by Canada

And yet, Milani says the clerics handing down the sentences are not immune. 

"They've decided to be the public face of the regime and to hand down those sentences. Of course they're accountable. It's their choice to be the arm of the regime."

In Toomaj's case, the chief justice issuing his indictment has previously been sanctioned by the U.K., the European Union, and most recently by Canada for having participated in gross and systematic human rights violations in Iran.

Amir Raesian, a lawyer who is acting on behalf of Toomaj's family, recently said on Twitter that he was not allowed to review or get an update on the rapper's case, when he appeared at the judiciary in Isfahan.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nahayat Tizhoosh is a journalist with CBC News Network's Power & Politics.

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