FILE PHOTO: Omid Djalili/REUTERS/By Simon Dawson

By Natasha Phillips

The British-Iranian comedian Omid Djalili applauded the decision by the city of Florence to make the imprisoned Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi an honorary citizen of the city and urge the Iranian government to release him.

Florence’s municipal council announced on July 3 that it would write to the Iranian embassy in Italy to ask for the release of imprisoned Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi. That’s after the city’s councillors awarded Salehi an honorary citizenship, paving the way for an official request to be made on behalf of the musician. Previous honorary citizens of Florence include former South African President and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela.

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“It’s a great move by the Italians, because it means whatever they plan on doing to Toomaj Salehi — simply for protesting — they will have to deal with him as a citizen of Florence,” British-Iranian actor and comedian Omid Djalili told Kayhan Life.

“This adds more pressure on an already difficult situation for the Islamic regime. Anything less than releasing him immediately with an acknowledgment that he has done nothing wrong is a complete public relations catastrophe for them,” Djalili said.

Djalili is Baha’i, a religious minority in Iran which has been consistently persecuted by the government. He has become increasingly vocal about human rights in recent months, advocating for women’s equality in Iran, as well as the establishment of legal protections for Baha’is living there.

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Salehi is a prominent artist who writes songs about social injustice and is widely known as the voice of Iran’s protests. He was arrested on Oct. 30 for criticizing state policies through his music and for posting videos on social media encouraging his followers to join the nationwide anti-government protests.

Salehi has been charged with “corruption on earth,” an offense which carries the death penalty in Iran. Additional charges include insulting the leadership, propaganda against the regime, cooperation with a hostile government and encouraging people to commit chaos and unrest, and spreading lies.

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Florence City Council said in a statement that now that Salehi was an honorary citizen of Florence, “we will be able to write to the Iranian embassy in Italy to request an update and ask for [Salehi’s] acquittal,” as well as ask for the release of “all those men and women who want a fairer and freer country.”

Salehi’s second court hearing since his imprisonment in Iran took place on July 2, and was held in Isfahan’s Islamic Revolutionary Court. The session lasted half an hour, according to a tweet later that day by his lawyer Amir Raisian. The first hearing had taken place on Nov. 26.

In a July 2 interview on Telegram with the reformist news outlet Ham-Mihan (the Persian word for ‘citizen’), Raisian said: “We were given a total of half an hour to meet the client at the Isfahan Intelligence Detention Center. The number of accusations was more than we could explain to the client in the time that we had.”

The second hearing was due to take place on June 20 but was postponed as several issues in the case had not been resolved.

The attorney told Ham-Mihan that the judiciary’s decision to close the court to the public, reporters, and Salehi’s family was not in compliance with Iran’s legal procedures. However, the court allowed him to present his defense both orally and in a written statement.

Describing Salehi’s composure during the hearing, Raisian said he gave “detailed and clear explanations in court,” despite having been in detention for almost 240 days.

The court’s verdict will be issued in one week, Raisian added.

Florence awarded Salehi its Golden Lily medal on March 2 for his protest against the death of 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian Jina Mahsa Amini. The medal is presented to human rights defenders and individuals who have been denied their rights.

Amini died of head injuries she sustained while in police custody in September after being detained for failing to follow Iran’s forced hijab laws. Amini’s death galvanized the anti-government protests in Iran. Brutal crackdowns by Iran’s security forces on protesters have left at least 500 people dead, including 70 children.

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