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Iran’s top court overturns death sentence of anti-regime rapper

Iran’s Supreme Court overturned the death sentence handed down to a rapper who made music that criticized the regime and backed nationwide protests sparked by a woman’s death in the custody of Iran’s morality police, his lawyer said.

Toomaj Salehi’s death sentence was “overturned and based on an appeal decision of the 39th branch of the Supreme Court, the case will be referred to [another] branch for consideration,” Salehi’s lawyer Amir Raesian wrote Saturday on X.

Iran’s Supreme Court has now ordered a retrial, Raesian said, adding that the judges decided that Salehi’s previous prison sentence of six years and three months — on charges of “spreading corruption on the Earth” — violated “Iran’s multiple-offenses rules, and was in excess of the legal punishment.”

Iran’s ISNA news agency also reported on the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Salehi’s death sentence. Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post early Sunday.

Salehi was taken into custody in October 2022, after he publicly supported the protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, which took place when she was detained for allegedly violating Iran’s strict Islamic dress code for women. The weeks-long protest movement, which united different factions of Iranian society and presented a major challenge to Iran’s clerical leadership, was ultimately snuffed out by the country’s authoritarian system.


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Salehi released two songs in support of the protests, including one that quoted the chant used by protesters: “Woman, life, freedom.” Another, titled “Divination,” includes the line: “Someone’s crime was her hair dancing in the wind.”

Salehi, a rare and unapologetic voice of defiance inside Iran, was an inspiration for the protest movement. He was one of several high-profile figures arrested in Iran in the crackdown against the protests over Amini’s death, in which at least 500 people were killed and tens of thousands detained, according to rights groups.

Salehi was briefly released from prison in November 2023 but was rearrested less than two weeks later, after saying in a video that he had been tortured and held in solitary confinement.

When Salehi’s case was appealed to the Supreme Court that time, it called on the lower court to drop some of the charges against him. But a revolutionary court, part of Iran’s parallel justice system, reassumed jurisdiction and sentenced him to death in April — a move condemned by human rights groups, experts with the United Nations and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

A coalition of rights groups working to defend Salehi welcomed the move by Iran’s Supreme Court.

“It 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,” said Index on Censorship, the Human Rights Foundation and lawyers representing Salehi in a statement published Saturday.

Negin Niknaam, one of Salehi’s closest confidants and the person who manages his social media accounts from Germany, said the death sentence “put huge psychological pressure” on Salehi, his friends and family. “They wasted a year of his life in prison. And now took away his death sentence so easily,” she told The Post. “It’s not as if we’re all celebrating this.”

“Toomaj’s soul has been damaged, our mental states have been damaged — all for a sentence that should have never been handed down in the first place,” she added.

Since the protests over Amini’s death, authorities have further tightened their control over Iranian society. Shortly after the first anniversary of the protests, Iran’s parliament approved a bill that would impose more severe punishments on those found to be violating the dress code for women, which includes a mandatory hijab, or headscarf. A constitutional council in Iran returned the bill to parliament for review late last year.

The Supreme Court’s decision comes less than a week ahead of presidential elections in Iran to replace President Ebrahim Raisi, who was killed in a helicopter crash last month. Some activists and supporters of the protest movement have called for a boycott of the election.

Salehi’s case will now return to the lower court that initially sentenced him to death — Branch 1 of the Isfahan Revolutionary Court — so he can receive a new sentence, according to the Index on Censorship statement. The group called on the court to respect the rapper’s rights in that process.

“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,” it said.

Miriam Berger and Susannah George contributed to this report.

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