Iran ‘Happy’ dancers sentenced to jail and flogging in flagrant assault on freedom of expression

The Iranian authorities’ sentencing of seven people for making a homemade video of the Pharrell Williams’ song, “Happy”, reveals the authorities’ contempt for freedom of expression, said Amnesty International.

Six of those who appear in the video have been sentenced to six months’ imprisonment each and a seventh to one year, one of their lawyers said in a media interview. All seven have also been sentenced to 91 lashes. The sentences are suspended for three years. 

“With these sentences, the absurd meets the unjust. If confirmed, it would be a ludicrous outcome; these individuals will have been convicted and branded criminals purely for making a music video celebrating happiness. The youths should never have been paraded before state TV to ‘confess’ nor brought to trial,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa programme. 

“These convictions flagrantly flout Iran’s obligation to respect the right to freedom of expression. If the sentences are ultimately carried out, these individuals will be prisoners of conscience.”

Suspended sentences are generally not carried out in Iran unless the individual is convicted of certain crimes, such as qesas (retribution in kind) or hodoud (fixed offences and punishments in Islamic law), during the period of time specified by the court – in this case three years.  However, individuals still remain under the threat of imprisonment. Flogging violates the absolute prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishments.

The sentences have not yet been communicated in writing to the lawyers.  

The seven Iranians – three women and four men– were convicted of “participating in the production of a vulgar video clip” and of “illicit relations between group members” following their trial on 9 September. Their lawyer has stated that he does not know whether they will appeal the verdict. 

The seven were arrested in May 2014 after appearing in the video dancing and miming to “Happy”, an upbeat anthem that has inspired hundreds of similar video tributes worldwide. The video is filmed on the streets and rooftops of Tehran. The women appear unveiled; veiling has been compulsory in Iran since 1981.

Police said the “vulgar” video offended “public chastity”. Shortly after the arrests, Iran’s state-run TV featured apparent “confessions” from the defendants in which they claimed to have been tricked into making the video, believing it was for an audition.

Background:

The seven have been named as Sassan Soleimani, Reyhaneh Taravati, Neda Motameni, Afshin Sohrabi, Bardia Moradi and Roham Shamekhi. 

Sassan Soleimani was additionally convicted of directing the video. Reyhaneh Taravati was also convicted of possessing alcohol in her home, and of uploading and distributing the video clip on YouTube.

The arrests prompted a Twitter campaign for the release of the seven with the hashtag #freehappyiranians.

On 21 May 2014, the semi-official Twitter account of President Hassan Rouhani quoted a 2013 statement by him, “#Happiness is our people's right. We shouldn't be too hard on behaviors caused by joy". The Tweet was interpreted by many to have made a reference to the arrests.