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Iran Risks Further Backlash for Death Sentence of Dissident Rapper, Says German MP

FILE - People hold portraits of Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi, right, and children, left, who were killed during the protests in Iran, during a rally in Istanbul, on Nov. 26, 2022.
FILE - People hold portraits of Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi, right, and children, left, who were killed during the protests in Iran, during a rally in Istanbul, on Nov. 26, 2022.

Iran's handing of a death sentence this week to dissident rapper Toomaj Salehi has drawn outrage from the Islamic republic's domestic and international critics, including a German lawmaker who says Tehran risks fueling the backlash if it moves toward executing the artist.

In an interview for the Friday edition of VOA's Flashpoint Global Crises program, German parliament member Ye-One Rhie said the Iranian government is using the death sentence to monitor who is still reacting to developments in Salehi's case and how they are reacting. Rhie has been acting as a "political sponsor" or advocate for the 33-year-old Iranian singer since shortly after his initial arrest in October 2022.

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"The Islamic Republic of Iran is testing the waters," Rhie said, noting that Tehran did the same when it staged an unprecedented aerial assault on Israel earlier this month. Israeli forces largely thwarted the attack with military assistance from a coalition of Western allies and Arab neighbors.

Iranian state-approved newspaper Shargh first reported the death sentence against Salehi in an article published Wednesday, citing one of his lawyers who vowed to appeal it.

Salehi was charged upon arrest with "spreading corruption on earth," an offense punishable by death. Days earlier, he had posted videos on Instagram, showing himself joining a nationwide protest movement against Iran's Islamist government and releasing a music video denouncing the government for 44 years of "failure."

The rapper was sentenced last July to six years in prison, but Iran's Supreme Court reviewed the ruling and declared it flawed, enabling his release in November. He was re-arrested two weeks later, after posting another video online complaining of being tortured in custody.

Wednesday's report of Salehi's death sentence drew swift condemnations from other dissidents and artists in Iran and from Iranian teachers' trade unions.

VOA's Persian Service also received and vetted several videos that appeared to show protest actions inside Iran. VOA could not verify the videos independently because it is barred from reporting inside Iran.

One video shows a banner with Salehi’s image on a bridge over Tehran's Modarres Expressway, as a woman filming the scene says the date is April 25.

Another clip shows a Persian slogan citing Salehi scrawled onto a building's exterior wall in an unidentified location. The graffiti says: "We will return to the streets with strength."

Criticism of Salehi's death sentence also came quickly from the United States and U.N. human rights bodies. In a Wednesday post on the X platform, U.S. Deputy Special Envoy for Iran Abram Paley said the U.S. "strongly" condemns the move. U.N. rights experts issued a statement Thursday demanding that Iran release Salehi immediately and reverse the sentence.

As those calls were made, some Iranian state media appeared to downplay the possibility of Salehi being executed. In articles published Thursday, they cited Iran's Judiciary Media Center as saying that even if the Supreme Court confirms Salehi's death sentence upon appeal, a Pardon and Forgiveness Commission would review the case for possible commutation.

Rhie said her efforts to raise international awareness of Salehi's plight for the past year-and-a-half have kept his case on the radar and agenda of Western media and governments.

"It is important for the Iranian regime to know that Salehi has a status that they cannot touch. I would warn them against doing anything to him, because they don't want to know what the backlash would be," Rhie said.

While Iran has signaled that Salehi's death sentence could be reversed, the German lawmaker said she will keep up her fight. "I don't think that there is anything that will stop us from our activism," she said.

VOA's Persian Service contributed to this report.

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