(NEW YORK)— PEN America today condemned the indictment in Iran of rap artist Toomaj Salehi, who could  face the death penalty for songs he wrote in support of ongoing mass protests across Iran.

“The indictment of Toomaj Salehi for his music with charges that raise the specter of the death sentence, is both obscene and horrifying. The Iranian government is targeting artists like Salehi precisely because they understand – and fear – the power and reach of artistic expression. Artists should never be punished for expressing themselves freely, whether in art or in protest, let alone threatened with their lives. We reaffirm our support for the UN Human Rights Council’s independent fact-finding mission to investigate human rights violations and crackdowns on freedom of expression in Iran,”  said Julie Trebault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC).

Salehi was arrested on Oct. 30, after reportedly sharing videos on Instagram calling on Iranians to support the demonstrations and releasing rap lyrics that criticized the Iranian government and its “year of colossal failure.” On Nov. 27, he was charged with “corruption on Earth,” a capital offense, as well as spreading propaganda, co-operating with a hostile government, and incitement to violence.

Iran state media subsequently published video footage of Salehi saying he “made a mistake” in his videos; this footage has been denounced by supporters as a forced confession. Since his time in detention, Salehi’s appointed lawyer has been refused access to his case details, while his family has not been not allowed to meet with him. Salehi was previously detained in 2021 and subjected to prolonged harassment by the authorities.

Earlier this week, the Iranian foreign minister criticized the UN Human Rights Council’s mission and refused to cooperate with these investigations. The government of Iran has intensified its violent crackdown on the protests, which broke out in September after the death in custody of Iranian woman Mahsa Amini and have since spread around the country, leading to the reported arrests of approximately 18,000 Iranians and the deaths of over 450 Iranians, including numerous writers, artists, and public intellectuals. On Nov. 22, award-winning Iranian actresses Hengameh Ghaziani and Katayoun Riahi were arrested and accused of collusion and acting against the authorities.

In PEN America’s 2021 Freedom to Write Index—an annual count of imprisoned writers worldwide—Iran is one of the top five global jailers of writers, with at least 21 jailed during 2021 for their free expression. Writers, artists, and public intellectuals arrested since September join those already in prison such as Narges Mohammadi, the Baha’i poet Mahvash Sabet, and Iranian Writers’ Association members Reza Khandan Mahabadi, Arash Ganji, and Keyvan Mohtadi. Authorities have used extralegal tactics, including surveillance and threats, to punish and retaliate against them, and to suppress free expression in literary, artistic, and public spaces in and outside of the country. More about PEN America’s work on Iran can be found here.

 About the Artists at Risk Connection

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.