Iran has arrested a former player of its national soccer team for his criticisms of the government. This was in response to the nationwide protests which have cast doubt over Iran’s participation at the World Cup.
According to semi-official Fars and Tasnim news agencies, Voria Ghafouri was charged with “insulting the national soccer team and spreading hatred against the government.”
Ghafouri was not selected to attend the World Cup but has been a vocal critic of Iranian authorities all his life. Ghafouri was critical of Iran’s long-standing ban on women watching soccer matches. He also objected to Iran’s aggressive foreign policy which has resulted in crippling Western sanctions.
He expressed sympathy to the family of a 22-year old woman, whose death in custody by Iran’s morality officers sparked the latest protests. He also demanded an end to the violent crackdown on protests within Iran’s western Kurdistan.
His arrest was reported before Friday’s World Cup match between Iran & Wales. After Iran’s opening match against England ended in a 6-2 defeat, members of Iran’s national team refused to sing the national anthem. Some fans supported the protests.
Holly Dagres, an Atlantic Council senior fellow, said that the team had lost support among Iranians prior to this gesture.
Dagres stated that, while it may seem significant for the team to remain silent during the anthem, many Iranians are already disappointed with the team’s conduct during the week.
Dagres also met with Raisi and said photos of players celebrating their World Cup entry as “protesters were being killed in the streets by security force.” This led many Iranians to see their team not only as a representative of them but of the clerical elite.
Protests were sparked by Mahsa Amini’s September 16 death. She was a Kurdish female who was detained by Tehran’s morality police. They quickly escalated to nationwide demonstrations calling for the overthrow Islamic Republic. Protests have been concentrated in the western Kurdish region, home to both Amini (and Ghafouri) of the country. On Thursday, shops were shut down in the area due to calls for a general strike.
Officials in Iran have not yet stated whether Ghafouri’s activism played a role in his selection for the national team. He is a member of the Khuzestan Foolad soccer team, located in Ahvaz’s southwest. Hamidreza Garshasbi was the club’s chairman. The semiofficial ILNA news agency did not provide further details.
Protests in Iran are not expected to abate and represent one of the most significant challenges for the ruling clerics of Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution brought them to power. Rights groups claim that security forces used live ammunition and bird shots on protesters and beat and arrested them. Much of the violence was captured on video. Iran sent a person to death last week for participating in the protests.
According to Human Rights Activists Iran, which has been closely monitoring the protests, at least 442 people have been killed and over 18,000 taken into custody.
Thursday’s vote by the U.N. Human Rights Council condemned the crackdown and created an independent fact-finding mission that will investigate allegations of abuses against children and women.
Authorities blame the unrest on foreign enemies without providing any evidence. They claim that separatists and other armies have attacked security forces. Human Rights Activists of Iran claim that at least 57 security personnel were killed. State media report a higher number.
Protesters claim they are tired of decades of political and social repression that has seen women dress in a very strict manner. The protests were led by young women, who took off the Islamic headscarf required for them to reject clerical rule.
Some Iranians actively support their team at the World Cup and associate it with corrupt rulers. Others claim that the national team, which also includes players who spoke out on social media to support the protests, represents the people of Iran.
Sardar Azmoun (the team’s star forward), was present at the bench during the first match. He has been vocal about the protests on the internet. Ghafouri was not the only soccer star who was arrested for supporting the protests.
Other Iranian athletes were also drawn into this struggle.
Elnaz Rezabi, an Iranian rock climber, competed in South Korea’s international competition without wearing her mandatory headscarf in October. This move was widely interpreted as support for the protests. After returning to Iran, she was given a warm welcome by protesters. However, she said that the decision was not intentional and that it was possible that she was forced to do so.
After Iran beat Brazil in an international tournament in Dubai earlier this month, Iran’s football association threatened to discipline its beach soccer players. After scoring a goal, one of the players celebrated by imitating a woman protester who had cut her hair.