Even after serving previous prison terms over charges related to his work, Rajabian has approached the upcoming trial with defiance. “I strongly believe in the philosophy and message of music, artistic independence and an uncensored world,” Rajabian said in a text messages from the Iranian city of Sari, after posting bail.
His trial comes amid a broader push by Iran’s ultraconservatives to silence voices calling for an end to rules limiting the behavior and expression of women in the country ahead of next year’s presidential election.
Iran has been hit harder by the novel coronavirus pandemic than most Middle Eastern nations, which has fueled political discontent and worsened the country’s economic crisis. As the death toll continued to rise, conservative hard-liners have in recent months cracked down on progressive critics and announced the arrests of women who refused to cover their hair.
The “hardest of the hard-liners are using this milieu, more so than the prospect of greater international tension, to prepare the ground to capture the presidency in 2021,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said in an email.
Under Iran’s vaguely defined laws regulating public performances, dancing and singing — especially by women — can be considered illegal.
Rajabian’s defense of artistic freedoms and women’s rights has come at a high price. He was jailed in 2013 and 2016, both times for violating laws banning artists from producing music without being granted permission, among other charges.
“To go after Mehdi and the whole artistic community in Iran like this, it just showed that Iran has been taking several steps backward,” said Srirak Plipat, the executive director of Freemuse, a nongovernmental organization that advocates artistic freedom and has been in frequent contact with Rajabian.
Iranian authorities have been on high alert in recent months, analysts said.
After protests erupted in November over plans to cut fuel subsidies, authorities used torture “to punish, intimidate and humiliate detainees,” according to a report by Amnesty International.
“Instead of investigating allegations of enforced disappearance, torture and other ill-treatment and other crimes against detainees, Iranian prosecutors became complicit in the campaign of repression,” Diana Eltahawy, a regional director for Amnesty International, said in a statement.
Iran’s justice system has been under additional scrutiny in recent months, amid a new wave of arrests.
After coronavirus restrictions drove a growing number of people online earlier this year to post photos of themselves violating the country’s rules on women’s clothing, authorities threatened a harsh response.
“The Iranian state has over the last few months engaged in deepening repression,” said Ali Fathollah-Nejad, an Iran researcher with the University of Tübingen.
He and others analysts said Iranian officials have shown growing concern that discontent exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis may result in new protests.
But relying on crackdowns to preempt new protests carries political risks, as well. In July, Iranian social media was flooded with dissent over plans to execute three young men who were arrested during the November protests last year. Authorities stayed the executions.
Rajabian said he does not know how many years in prison he could face. While his case has triggered criticism from abroad, Iran’s state-run and semiofficial media outlets have refrained from covering his story.
“Even ordinary people are afraid to talk to me,” Rajabian wrote.
Iranian authorities did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the charges.
The artist has faced state scrutiny in Iran since he was first arrested in 2013, along with his brother, Hossein, a filmmaker, with whom he operated a joint record label.
Rajabian said he was held in solitary confinement for several months.
He and his brother were sentenced to prison in 2015 on charges that included the production of music outside of state sanction — the duo did not have a government license.
Rajabian was released early from prison after going on a hunger strike, in which he says he lost 33 pounds and 40 percent of vision in one eye.
He is not afraid of going to prison again, he said in a text message. The repression he has faced, he said, has been “a prison in itself.”