Iranian soccer player arrested after brave protest

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Iran arrested a prominent former member of its national soccer team on Thursday for criticizing its government as authorities battled nationwide protests that have cast a shadow over its bid for the World Cup.

The semi-official Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported that Voria Ghafouri was arrested for “insulting the national football team and spreading propaganda against the government”.

Ghafouri, who was not selected to go to the World Cup, has been an outspoken critic of the Iranian authorities throughout his career. He objected to Iran’s confrontational foreign policy, along with a longstanding ban on female spectators at men’s soccer matches, which has crippled Western sanctions.

Most recently, he expressed his condolences to the family of a 22-year-old woman whose death while in the custody of Iran’s morality police has ignited the latest protests. In recent days he has called for an end to the violent crackdown on protests in Iran’s western Kurdistan region.

News of his arrest came ahead of the World Cup match between Iran and Wales on Friday. In Iran’s opening match, a 6–2 loss to England, members of the Iranian national team refused to sing their national anthem and some fans expressed support for the protest.

The protests were sparked by the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman arrested by morality police in the capital, Tehran. They quickly turned into nationwide protests calling for the downfall of the Islamic Republic. The country’s western Kurdish region, where both Amini and Ghafouri are from, has been at the center of protests. Shops in the area were closed on Thursday as a general strike was called.

Iran’s football team has chosen not to sing the country’s national anthem ahead of the World Cup match between Iran and England on November 21, 2022.
Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Iranian officials did not say whether Ghafouri’s activism was a factor in his not being selected for the national team. He plays for the Khuzestan Fulad team in the southwestern city of Ahvaz. The club’s chairman, Hamidreja Gershasby, resigned later Thursday, the semi-official ILNA news agency reported without elaborating.

The protests show no sign of abating and mark one of the biggest challenges to Iran’s ruling clerics since the 1979 Islamic revolution that brought them to power. Rights groups say security forces used live ammunition and birdshot on protesters, as well as beating and arresting them, much of the violence captured on video.

At least 442 protesters have been killed and more than 18,000 detained since the unrest began, according to Iranian human rights activists, a group that monitors the protests.

A fire burns on a street in Tehran during a protest on October 8, 2022.
Photo -/AFP via Getty Images

The UN Human Rights Council on Thursday voted to set up an independent fact-finding mission to condemn the crackdown and investigate alleged abuses, particularly against women and children.

Authorities have blamed the unrest on hostile foreign powers without evidence and said separatists and other armed groups have attacked security forces. Iranian human rights activists say at least 57 security personnel were killed, while state media put the number higher.

Protesters say they are upset after decades of social and political repression, including a strict dress code imposed on women. Young women have played a leading role in the protests, removing the mandatory Islamic headscarf to express their rejection of clerical rule.

Some Iranians are actively rooting against their own team at the World Cup, associating it with a regime they see as violent and corrupt. Others insist the national team, which includes players who have spoken out on social media in solidarity with the protests, represents the people of the country.

The team’s star forward, Sardar Azmoun, who has been vocal about the protests online, was on the bench during the opening match. Apart from Ghafouri, two other former football stars have been arrested for supporting the protests.

Other Iranian athletes have also entered the fray.

Iranian rock climber Elnaz Rekabi competed in an international competition in South Korea in October without wearing the mandatory headscarf, a move that drew widespread support for the protests. He received a hero’s welcome from protesters upon his return to Iran, even telling state media that the move was “unintentional” in an interview that may have been given under duress.

Earlier this month, Iran’s football federation threatened to punish the players of its beach soccer team after they beat Brazil in an international competition in Dubai. A player celebrated after scoring a goal by imitating a female protester by cutting her hair.

Iranian soccer player arrested after brave protest

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