There have been several “small” positive developments in the situation of jailed Iranian hip-hop star and dissident Toomaj Salehi, according to a German lawmaker serving as his political sponsor.
Salehi has been in solitary confinement for 89 days at Dastgerd Prison in the central Iranian city of Isfahan, according to the latest update from his official Twitter account, which is being administered by his supporters.
He was detained by Iranian authorities on October 30, 2022, and charged with several offenses, including “corruption on Earth,” a serious crime punishable by death. His songs denounce Iran’s Islamist rulers and the perceived injustices they have perpetrated against the Iranian people.
Salehi also embraced Iran’s anti-government protest movement that began last September. In the days before his arrest, he posted videos of himself on Instagram participating in peaceful street demonstrations and urging others to do the same.
In December, Iranian state media published a video of Salehi appearing to express regret for promoting violence through music, as he put it. But his supporters denounced the video as the latest example of the Iranian government’s common practice of producing videos of forced confessions of alleged crimes by people whom it targets for arrest.
Ye-One Rhie, a member of the German federal parliament for the ruling Social Democratic Party, has been campaigning for Salehi’s release in recent months as part of a long-standing tradition of German lawmakers serving as sponsors of political prisoners around the world. She discussed the latest developments in his case in a January 20 phone interview for VOA’s “Flashpoint Iran” podcast.
The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
VOA: You’ve been trying to contact the Iranian ambassador to Germany, and I understand you’ve written multiple letters and only received one response so far. So, why are you continuing to write to him?
Ye-One Rhie, German Federal Parliament Member: We are not writing because we really expect him to reply in a very honest and open way. We just want him to know that we will keep an eye out for all the political prisoners that we have a sponsorship for, and that he should never think that we lessen our approach, or that our attention is weakening. So, that’s the reason why we are writing him.
But we are looking out very carefully at what is happening with the prisoners in Iran. We are just looking for: Are there any lighter sentences? Are there people or prisoners who get out of prison, or whose death sentence has been lifted? That’s the response we are looking for. And we don’t want the embassy or the regime in Iran to think that we don’t care anymore. That’s the reason why we keep writing.
VOA: Do you have any idea how many other German parliament members are politically sponsoring Iranian prisoners, and what kind of coordination do you have with them?
Rhie: There are over 300 members of parliament in Germany who have political sponsorships. It’s [not only] the members of the Bundestag but also the [German] members of the European Parliament.
And we have, I think as far as I know, two bigger coordinations going on. There are three activists who are doing it. They have, I think, matched and coordinated most of the sponsorships.
We [also] have the International Society for Human Rights [IGFM] in Germany, and they have a lot of experience already in matching and coordinating political sponsorships.
So, they are doing all the research work. They are finding out who is in prison right now for political reasons — what the accusations are, what the status is, and how to get in touch with people who know more about their cases. So, that’s what they are doing. The members of parliament are just the ones who are in public for that. But the work in the background is going on with the IGFM and the activists who are doing it.
VOA: Speaking of the status of the prisoners, what have you learned about Toomaj’s latest condition?
Rhie: As far as I know, the last I heard from him, is — what I always repeat — that the condition of his left eye is still worrying. Probably most people know that he was tortured and that he had a lot of broken bones all over his body. But especially the condition of his left eye is worrying because we don’t really know how far his eyesight is affected.
And what I’m hearing is, if he doesn’t get treated very, very soon, it might be permanent. So, that’s the most worrying aspect of this health condition right now.
Other than that, there are a few small positive steps, like that his father was allowed to visit him on a very regular basis, and that his two appointed lawyers were chosen by himself. But it’s not enough that I would say, “Well, we made progress,” because we don’t really know how far they [Iranian authorities] will go with that, or if they will turn back all of those developments that we are considering to be a little bit positive.
So, the lawyers don’t have access to all the case files. So, it could be a little bit of a scam to be allowed to have the lawyers but [at the same time] they are not allowed to study the case files. So, they are not prepared, [and] so it doesn’t make any change in how the court ruling will go. So, we are pressing for that.
But I’m relieved that he has at least some kind of contact with the father, because he has been in solitary confinement for 80 [now 89] days. I mean, every person would go insane just being by himself and being tortured and being injured as he is. So, small steps. That’s pretty much what we are getting out of this situation right now.