Iranian singer Shervin Hajipour sentenced to prison for Mahsa Amini protest anthem

First lady Jill Biden accepts the award for best song for social change on behalf of Shervin Hajipour for "Baraye" at the 65th annual Grammy Awards - February 2023
First lady Jill Biden accepts the award for best song for social change on behalf of Shervin Hajipour for "Baraye" at the 65th annual Grammy Awards - February 2023 Copyright Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
By David MouriquandAP
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Singer Hajipour received a three-year, eight-month sentence on charges of “propaganda against the system” and “encouraging people to protest.” He won a Grammy last year, presented by US first lady Jill Biden, for his song 'Baraye' - "a powerful and poetic call for freedom and women’s rights.”

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Shervin Hajipour, the Iranian singer who won a Grammy presented by US first lady Jill Biden, has been sentenced to more than three years in prison over his anthem supporting the 2022 protests over the death of Mahsa Amini.

Hajipour posted on Instagram on Friday (1 March), the same day that Iran held its parliamentary election, what appeared to be part of the judgment against him.

It said Hajipour received a three-year, eight-month sentence on charges of “propaganda against the system” and “encouraging people to protest.” The court issued its sentence in part because it found he hadn't properly expressed regret over publishing the song.

It also imposed a two-year travel ban and ordered him to create a song about “US crimes," as well as make posts about those crimes online.

Hajipour thanked his lawyers and his agent for their support.

“I will not mention the name of the judge and the prosecutor so that they don’t get insulted and threatened, because insults and threats are not in the religion of humanity,” he wrote. “Finally, one day we will understand each other. Until then.”

Hajipour already had served some prison time, but was out on bail pending the court's decision. It was unclear if he had already reported to serve his sentence.

Hajipour’s song 'Baraye', or 'For' in English, begins with: “For dancing in the streets,” “for the fear we feel when we kiss.” 

The lyrics list reasons that young Iranians posted online for why they had protested against Iran’s ruling theocracy after Amini's death in September 2022, allegedly for not wearing her mandated headscarf to the liking of security forces.

The protests quickly escalated into calls to overthrow Iran’s clerical rulers. A subsequent security crackdown killed more than 500 people, with more than 22,000 detained.

Jill Biden awarded Hajipour the Grammy's new song for social change special merit award during the ceremony last year.

“This song became the anthem of the Mahsa Amini protests, a powerful and poetic call for freedom and women’s rights,” Biden said at the ceremony. “Shervin was arrested, but this song continues to resonate around the world with its powerful theme: Women, life, freedom.”

The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran condemned Hajipour's sentencing, and demanded Iran immediately release him from the sentence.

“This blatant violation of Shervin’s rights to free speech and expression is a grave injustice and a clear affront to human rights principles,” the center said. “His imprisonment serves as a chilling reminder of the ongoing repression faced by artists, activists and dissenting voices in Iran.”

PEN America similarly criticized Iran for ordering Hajipour to prison as well as sentencing rappers and others over their music critical of the government in Tehran.

“Shervin Hajipour’s sentencing is another awful attempt to suppress the independent voices who channel the demands of the Iranian people for basic freedoms," said Julie Trébault, director of PEN's Artists at Risk Connection. “The Iranian government fears the power of music to give hope and inspire citizens to dream of a better and more equitable future for all.”

A woman holds a poster of rapper Toomaj Salehi, who was arrested over his support of the Mahsa Amini protests
A woman holds a poster of rapper Toomaj Salehi, who was arrested over his support of the Mahsa Amini protestsGetty Images

Hajipour's sentencing comes as other activists, journalists and artists have faced arrest, imprisonment and harassment since the demonstrations.

Among those imprisoned is Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi, artist Elham Modarresi, and rapper Toomaj Salehi, who was charged with "corruption on Earth" for backing anti-government protests.

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Last month, filmmakers Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Sanaeeha were absent from the Berlin International Film Festival, and were unable to present their film My Favourite Cake, which premiered in Competition.  

The pair discovered they were subject to a travel ban at Tehran airport at the end of September 2023, after their passports were confiscated as they went to catch a flight to Paris to work on post-production on My Favourite Cake.

In December, local media reported that Iranian security forces raided the house of the film’s editor, seizing rushes and materials related to the production.

The country’s hard-line Islamist authorities are believed to have been angered by the film, which revolves around a lonely septuagenarian widow who decides to break her solitary routine and revitalize her love life.

Still from 'My Favourite Cake'
Still from 'My Favourite Cake'Berlinale

The film, one of our standouts at this year's Berlinale, was shot mostly in secret around the same time as the Woman, Life, Freedom protests broke out nationwide, and is a lot more critical of the Iranian regime than its story initially seems to suggest. It shows a woman not wearing the mandatory hijab, people drinking alcohol and dancing, but also includes a few potent digs at the morality police.

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For instance, our main protagonist sees the morality police trying to arrest a young woman for not wearing her hijab properly.

“You kill them over a few strands of hair?,” responds Mahin, a direct reference for audience members to Mahsa Amini.

When the 70-year-old does manage to save the young woman (and avoid being arrested herself for the same crime), she tells her: “You have to stand up for yourself” – a message of empowerment that cannot be tolerated under the nation’s repressive regime.

Moghaddam and Sanaeeha’s last collaboration, the stunning and emotionally devastating Ballad Of A White Cow, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2021. Their film told the story of a woman who discovers her executed husband was innocent of the charges against him.

They were subsequently sued by the Revolutionary Guards for Ballad Of A White Cow, and charged with “propaganda against the regime and acting against national security”. They were later acquitted but the film remains banned in Iran, a country which ranked second on the PEN America 2022 Freedom to Write Index list of the top 10 jailers of writers globally.

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