Sting, Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak and Coldplay join more than 100 artists, musicians, writers and leading cultural figures to call for the immediate and unconditional release of Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi

On 24 April 2024 Iranian songwriter and rapper, Toomaj Salehi, was sentenced to death for using his voice and his music to call out the human rights abuses of the Iranian regime.

Salehi’s death sentence is the culmination of three years of judicial harassment, including arrest, imprisonment and torture. His persecution has intensified since the 2022-23 protests in Iran. These protests, which Salehi supported, followed Mahsa Amini’s death while in the custody of the morality police.

Many of Salehi’s songs refer to the human rights situation in Iran, explicitly criticising the regime and calling for fundamental rights, including women’s rights, to be upheld. Last October, Salehi received Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Award in the arts category

As artists, musicians, writers and leading cultural figures we stand in solidarity with Toomaj Salehi. We call for his death sentence to be immediately and unconditionally quashed and for him to be released from detention without delay, with all other charges dismissed. 

Art must be allowed to criticise, to provoke, to question and to challenge authority. That is both our right and our duty as artists. “Now, free hair is dancing — playing with the wind.” Salehi says in the song Shallagh (Whip) recorded with the Iranian rapper, Justine, supporting the young people taking part in the 2022-23 protests in support of women’s rights. 

No artist should be subject to any kind of judicial harassment for exercising their right to freedom of expression, much less be sentenced to death.


David Aaronovitch, writer and broadcaster

Yasmin Abdel-Magied, writer

Majid Adin, animator and illustrator

Rashad Ali, researcher

Lord David Alton, peer

Sara Amini, theatre director

Ruth Anderson, CEO of Index on Censorship

Kerry Andrew, writer and musician

Professor Ali Ansari, historian

John Armah, culture board trustee

Mona Arshi, poet

Neal Ascherson, writer

Margaret Atwood, writer

Ganjei Babak, visual artist

Tamara Baschak, pianist

Karima Benoune, law professor and former UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights

Steve Beresford, musician and lecturer

Nazanin Boniadi, actress and campaigner

Roya Boroumand, co-founder and executive director of Aborrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran

Elli Brazzill, founder, Art Not Evidence

Simon Brodkin, comedian

Bill Browder, writer and human rights campaigner

Tina Brown, CBE, journalist, editor and author

Shereener Browne, actor, theatre maker & barrister

Alastair Campbell, writer and communicator 

Matthew Caruana Galizia, director, Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation

Stevie Chick, writer and editor

Jasmina Cibic, artist and filmmaker

Coldplay, musicians

Andrew Copson, chief executive, Humanists UK

Rob da Bank, DJ

Hossein Dabbagh, philosopher

Stephen Dalton, arts journalist 

Matthew d’Ancona, journalist and author 

Andy Diagram, musician

Jonathan Dimbleby, broadcaster and historian

Kwame Djemjem, teacher

John Doran, writer and editor

Graham Dowdall, musician and lecturer

Catherine Dunne, writer and chair, Irish PEN

Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Laureate

Inua Ellams, writer and curator

Barbara Ellen, journalist 

Zlata Filipovic, writer and documentary maker

Lord Daniel Finkelstein, journalist and politician 

Viviana Fiorenino, writer and board member, Irish PEN

Cassie Fox, lecturer and musician 

Andrew Franklin, publisher, and trustee of Index on Censorship

Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, human rights lawyer, and acting for Toomaj Salehi’s family

Elizabeth T Grey Jr, poet and translator

Hadi Ghaemi, founder and director of Center for Human Rights in Iran

Maryam Grace, actor and writer

Malu Halasa, writer

Dana Haqjoo, actor

Dr Patrick Hassan, philosopher and musician

Charles Hayward, musician

Lord John Hendy KC, peer and human rights lawyer

Afua Hirsch, writer and broadcaster

Rosie Holt, comedian

Gwyneth Hughes, screenwriter 

Bianca Jagger, founder and president of the Bianca Human Rights Foundation Council of Europe Goodwill Ambassador to Abolish the Death Penalty

Lanna Joffrey, actor and writer

Professor David Kaye, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression

Baroness Helena Kennedy KC, peer and human rights lawyer

David Knopfler, recording artist 

Shaparak Khorsandi, comic and author

Angela Last, cultural geographer, musician and label owner

Lumli Lumlong, artists

Rahima Mahmut, musician and human rights campaigner

Kate Maltby, writer and deputy chair of Index on Censorship

Colum McCann, writer

Val McDermid, writer and broadcaster

Professor Juan Méndez, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

Fiona Millar, journalist

Keir Monteith KC, barrister

Helen Mountfield KC, principal of Mansfield College Oxford and trustee of Index on Censorship

Joe Muggs, writer

Dr Phil Mullen, musician and educator

Joe Murphy, writer

Azar Nafisi, writer and professor

Ayat Najafi, film director and screenwriter

Roshi Nasehi, musician and theatre-maker

Ramita Navai, journalist

John Norton, radio producer and artist

Sir Ben Okri, poet and novelist 

Abenaa Owusu-Bempah, associate professor, London School of Economics

Matthew Parris, writer and broadcaster

Matteo Pericoli, artist

Trevor Phillips, broadcaster and chair of Index on Censorship

Professor Eithne Quinn, University of Manchester academic

Izzy Rabey, director

Nora Rahimian, anti-capitalist business coach and #CultureFix co-founder

Kaveh Rahnama, director and programme creator

Richard Ratcliffe, campaigner

Dafydd Huw Rees, philosopher

Damien Rice, musician

Joe Robertson, writer

Ian Rosenblatt, lawyer and trustee of Index on Censorship

Maryam Sandjari Hashemi, multidisciplinary artist 

Philippe Sands, writer

Dr Katherine Schofield, senior lecturer in South Asian Music and history, King’s College London

Elif Shafak, novelist

Kamila Shamsie, novelist

Bill Shipsey, founder and director of Art for Human Rights

Reza Shirmarz, playwright

Peter Sís, artist

Simon Speare, composer and teacher

Mark Stephens, CBE, free speech lawyer, Howard Kennedy LLP and trustee of Index on Censorship

Sting, musician

David Stubbs, writer

Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh, artist, writer and academic

Ghafar Tajmohammad, artist and curatorial project manager at the Migration Museum 

Jade Thirlwall, musician 

Mark Thomas, comedian

Salil Tripathi, writer

Roxana Vilk, actor and musician 

Amber Wilkinson, journalist

Vanessa Wilson-Best, musician and director of music

Lord Stewart Wood, peer

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, former hostage and campaigner 

Liza Zahra, actor

Vahid Zarezadeh, filmmaker

We must not forget what is happening inside Iran

While Iran and Israel continue to provoke each other in the aftermath of the 7 October attacks by Hamas, there are concerns that the fate of protesters in Iran, particularly those that started after the murder in custody of Jina ‘Mahsa’ Amini, are being forgotten as the Iranian leadership cracks down.

“Governments often utilise external conflicts to divert attention from domestic issues,” says exiled Iranian film-maker Vahid Zarezadeh. “In Iran, while the government addresses threats from abroad, it simultaneously intensifies its grip on civil liberties at home, particularly targeting women’s freedoms. This approach helps consolidate power internally by rallying nationalistic sentiments while suppressing dissent.”

Zarezadeh, who made the documentary White Torture in collaboration with the jailed 2023 Nobel Peace Prize winner Narges Mohammadi and Gelareh Kakavand, says, “Given the complexities of the current events in Iran and the ongoing regional tensions, it’s crucial to understand the multifaceted nature of the strife affecting the nation, particularly its impact on women and civil society. As Iran navigates its ongoing conflict with Israel, another critical issue persists domestically: the war against women in the streets of Tehran and other cities. This battle is intensifying with new legislative measures concerning the hijab, marking the beginning of a renewed phase of systematic suppression.”

Last September, Iran’s parliament passed a bill with a huge majority that meant that refusing to wear a hijab, either in person or even on video on social media, was considered as nudity. The bill allows for jail sentences of up to ten years for those who fail to adhere to the new measures. Iranian businesses that “promote or allow immoral behaviour”, including not wearing the hijab, are also targeted by the bill.

Zarezadeh says that pressure from the Iranian authorities on protest and dissent has increased markedly.

“A stringent crackdown on dissent has emerged, characterised by the systematic suppression of women and civil activists,” he says. “While the massive protests have lessened in visibility due to severe governmental crackdowns, underlying discontent remains. The fear of reprisal, particularly the death penalty, has tempered the public’s willingness to protest as openly as before.”

Even with the new stricter laws on dress code, he says that resistance against the compulsory hijab continues as a symbol of wider discontent with systemic gender-based restrictions.

“Despite the risks, including severe penalties such as the death penalty, the spirit of dissent still simmers, manifesting in smaller, yet persistent protests,” he says.

The resistance is still being kept alive through social media, and X in particular, where the hashtag #جنگ_علیه_زنان (“war against women”) has gained traction. Its widespread usage serves as a barometer for the internal sentiment against the current regime’s policies.

Videos showing women being violent attacked in broad daylight by the morality police and being thrown into the backs of vans are being widely shared using the hashtag, such as this:

Many women human rights defenders and activists have been thrown in prison, and face dire conditions with no adequate medical or sanitary provisions.

“A poignant example is Bahareh Hedayat, a prominent student activist who was temporarily released for medical treatment due to uterine cancer but has since been returned to prison,” says Zarezdeh. “Such cases underscore the severe and deteriorating conditions faced by women behind bars.”

One powerful symbol in the protests over the last two years were the actions of schoolgirls in protesting against the restrictions on women.

However, young protesters, including many schoolgirls, have since faced detention and other forms of intimidation. Detailed follow-ups on their situations are scant due to restrictions on information flow within the country.

The fate of the Iranian woman climber Elnaz Rekabi is also far from clear. Rekabi competed in a climbing tournament in South Korea in 2022 without a hijab.

“After her act of defiance by competing without a hijab, Elnaz Rekabi faced both support and significant pressure upon her return to Iran,” says Zarezdeh

When she flew home from South Korea, Rekabi said that her hijab had fallen off inadvertently. Her family’s villa in Iran was subsequently demolished, seemingly in punishment.

Zarezdeh says, “The full extent of Rekabi’s current situation remains unclear with concerns about her freedom and well-being continuing to linger.”

There continues to be a hunger for reform despite the crackdown. “The initial surge in hope for a potential regime change has been dampened by the forceful response from the authorities,” says Zarezadeh. “However, the desire for reform and change persists among various sectors of the society.”

Life and death in Iran’s prisons

Narges Mohammadi is locked in a vicious circle. The 2023 Nobel Peace Prize winner has been held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison since September 2022 and the Iranian authorities seem determined to keep the prominent human rights activist there.

Mohammadi became active in fighting against the oppression of women in Iran as a student physicist in the 1990s and has promoted human rights ever since, including campaigning for an end to the death penalty in a country where 582 were executed last year alone.

In her nomination for the Peace Prize, Berit Reiss-Andersen, the head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said: “Her brave struggle has come with tremendous personal costs. Altogether, the regime has arrested her 13 times, convicted her five times, and sentenced her to a total of 31 years in prison and 154 lashes.”

During her current detention, Mohammadi has been summoned to the courts on numerous occasions to face new charges. Yet Mohammadi argues that the revolutionary courts are not independent judicial bodies and she has also stopped lawyers attending on her behalf for that same reason.

Some of these charges relate to her ongoing human rights work from inside prison, including smuggling out an article which was published in the New York Times on the anniversary of Mahsa (Jina) Amini’s death in custody, the event that sparked the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests that erupted in Iran in 2022. Mohammadi’s message from prison was: “The more of us they lock up, the stronger we become.”

At the beginning of last week, the woman human rights defender started a hunger strike in protest against delayed and neglectful medical care for sick prisoners, as well as the rule which makes wearing the “mandatory hijab” a condition for the transfer of the women prisoners to medical facilities. Then, earlier this week Mohammadi heard that she was to face a series of new charges, but after refusing to wear hijab the prosecutor prohibited her from attending court. As a result neither Mohammadi nor her lawyer know the nature of the new charges levelled against her. She has now ended her hunger strike.

The regime will be infuriated with her refusal to engage with the justice system, while Mohammadi knows that each time she doesn’t attend it draws yet more attention to her plight.

Mohammadi knows only too well the methods the authorities use to break prisoners. Index has recently been given a video made by Mohammadi just before she returned to jail, shot by the Iranian film-maker Vahid Zarezadeh. In it she says that people should not be surprised if, in the event that she dies in jail, the authorities blame an undiagnosed health problem, perhaps a dodgy heart.

“This system sets up the conditions for the prisoner’s death,” she says.

In sharing the video, she has put the regime on notice that they are being watched. You can watch the video here.

Zarezadeh tells me, “It was filmed at the time when she was rushed from the prison to the hospital due to the blockage of her heart veins, which were opened through angioplasty. She was on medical leave and not in good health. Shortly after this video, she was returned to Qarchak women’s prison.”

He says, “Qarchak Women’s Prison is a notorious facility designed for women, where many human rights activists and opponents of compulsory hijab are held. The prison’s lack of adequate drinking water, as well as poor hygiene and medical care, leads to the spread of various diseases among inmates. Originally used as a livestock centre, Qarchak has been expanded over time. Numerous reports highlight human rights violations in this prison, yet Iranian judicial authorities show no inclination to change the conditions of detainment.”

Iran’s appalling human rights record has also come under scrutiny at this week’s Alternative Human Rights Expo, which highlighted human rights issues related to the suppression of freedom of expression and assembly in the Middle East and North Africa. The virtual event, hosted by the Gulf Center for Human Rights and its partners, was held to focus attention on the 28th session of the Conference of Parties (COP28) to be held from 30 November to 12 December 2023 in the United Arab Emirates. It featured artists, poets, writers and singers from the region including Iranian poet Fatemeh Ekhtesari.

Ekhtesari performed her poem She is Not Woman as part of the event (which is available to view here) which includes the following lines:

We’re sick of queuing for the gallows
Clotted grief in our blood
Trouble is all that’s left
Rage is all we own

Narges Mohammadi’s rage is clear for everyone to see. It is high time that she and other human rights defenders in Iran’s jails are unconditionally released.

Remember their names: The protesters executed by the Iranian authorities

As of last week four young men have been executed at the hands of the Iranian regime. They were arrested while participating in the recent protests sparked by the death in custody of Jina (Mahsa) Amini. After being tortured and forced to make confessions, they faced grossly unfair show trials. Without strong condemnation, this death toll will grow – there are many more who have currently been sentenced to execution. Here we remember those four who died fighting for freedom.

Mohammad Mehdi Karami 

Mohammad Mehdi Karami was a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian man From Karaj in the Alborz province of Iran. He was arrested on 5 November 2022 for allegedly killing a member of the security forces and was executed just two months later on 7 January. At the time of his death, he had been on hunger strike for four days, demanding access to his lawyer.

Mohammad was a national karate champion who had several national titles. In an interview with Etemad newspaper, his father describes Mohammad as “an athlete who constantly strived to achieve honours”. In the video, uploaded on 12 December, he pleads with authorities to release his son and recounts various attempts to contact the lawyer who was appointed to his son by the judiciary, all of which were ignored. He describes a phone conversation with Mohammad in which the young man sobbed and begged his father not to tell his mother about his sentence. “Mehdi’s mother is very attached to him,” he said. “If something happens to Mehdi, our lives will also end”.

Mohammad attempted to appeal his sentence but was denied. His father maintains that on their final phone call, his son swore to have not committed murder. The family was not allowed to see him to say goodbye before he was hanged. They camped outside the Rajai Shahr prison in Karaj. The prison guards reassured them that he was alive and well. They told the family that rumours of execution were false and to return home. Mohammad’s grave is in Eshtehard, Alborz. Mehdi Beyk, the journalist who interviewed Karami’s parents, was later arrested.

Seyed Mohammad Hosseini

Seyed Mohammad Hosseini, 39, was a worker remembered for volunteering with children by a German parliamentarian who advocated his case.

Hosseini was convicted for allegedly murdering a member of the security forces and was executed on 7 January. His lawyer, Ali Sharifzadeh Ardakani, described meeting him in prison: “He was in tears, talking about how he was tortured and beaten while blindfolded.” Ardakani previously revealed that the court had denied him access to case materials to defend his client during the entire interrogation and trial process.

Seyed Mohammad was an orphan with no immediate family to receive his body after his execution. His brother was also arrested but disappeared after release. Mohammad’s friends weren’t allowed to visit him in prison. He was buried near Mohammad Mehdi Karami’s grave in Eshtehard, Alborz. Mohammad Mehdi’s family attended Mohammad’s grave, lit candles and placed flowers there in his memory.

Majidreza Rahnavard

Majidreza Rahnavard was publicly executed on 12 December, just 23 days after his arrest.

Majidreza Rahnavard. Photo: 1500tasvir_en (CC BY-SA 4.0)

He was charged with allegedly fatally stabbing two Basij militia volunteers. The 23-year-old was denied a lawyer of his choice for his trial.

The lawyer he was given did not put up a defence. Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, director of Norway-based Iran Human Rights, tweeted that Rahnavard was sentenced based on “coerced confessions, after a grossly unfair process and a show trial”.

Majidreza’s mother was not told about his execution until after his death. Activist collective 1500tasvir said on Twitter that the family received a telephone call from an official at 07:00 local time. They said: “We have killed your son and buried his body in Behesht-e Reza cemetery.”

In a video aired by authorities, Rahnavard appears blindfolded, surrounded by masked men. He is asked what he wrote in his will. He says: “I don’t want anyone to pray, or to cry. I want everyone to be happy and play happy music.”

Mohsen Shekari

Mohsen Shekari, 23, worked in a cafe. He was arrested on 25 September for trying to stop security forces from attacking protesters in Tehran. He was the first person to be executed by the state on 8 December after being convicted of injuring a member of Iran’s Basij militia or “waging war against God”. While authorities asserted that he wielded a machete, Shekari’s family disputed this version of events, claiming he used non-violent means to separate protesters and security forces.

Mohsen Shekari. Photo: Unknown (CC BY 4.0).

Shekari’s uncle told The Guardian that authorities did not release his body. Other families of dead protesters have made similar statements. He said that the family had been sent to two cemeteries, but that when they arrived at the locations, they were told the body was not there. Although Mohsen’s mother saw her son the night before his hanging, she was ordered to remain silent about his fate.

Shekari’s judge had the choice to impose a lighter sentence and chose not to do so. Shekari appealed the verdict but was denied by Iran’s Supreme Court, despite the fact that he was not represented by his lawyer at the time of the appeal.