Home » Iranian soccer star Voria Ghafouri arrested for criticizing government

Iranian soccer star Voria Ghafouri arrested for criticizing government

by Mahmmod Shar

CBS News

Iran arrested a prominent former member of its national soccer team on Thursday over his criticism of the government as authorities grapple with nationwide protests that have cast a shadow over its competition at the World Cup.

The semiofficial Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported that Voria Ghafouri was arrested for “insulting the national soccer team and propagandizing against the government.”

Ghafouri, who was not chosen to go to the World Cup, has been an outspoken critic of Iranian authorities throughout his career. He objected to a longstanding ban on women spectators at men’s soccer matches as well as Iran’s confrontational foreign policy, which has led to crippling Western sanctions.

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

The reports of his arrest came ahead of Friday’s World Cup match between Iran and Wales. At Iran’s opening match, a 6-2 loss to England, the members of the Iranian national team declined to sing along to their national anthem and some fans expressed support for the protests.

Prior to that gesture, the team had lost support from fellow Iranians for its meeting with hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Holly Dagres, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told CBS News this week.

Dagres said that while the team remaining silent during the anthem “may seem very significant, many Iranians were already disappointed in the team’s behavior during the past week.”

In addition to the meeting with Raisi, Dagres said photos showing the players celebrating their World Cup entry, as “protesters were being slain in the streets by security forces,” left many Iranians to view their team “as not representative of them, but of the clerical establishment.”

The protests started after Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman detained by Tehran’s morality police on September 16, died. They quickly turned into widespread protests demanding the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. Both Amini and Ghafouri are from the country’s western Kurdish region, which has been the focal point of the demonstrations. On Thursday, businesses in the area were closed as a result of calls for a general strike.

Iranian authorities are silent on whether Ghafouri’s activism played a role in his exclusion from the national team. He represents the Khuzestan Foolad team in Ahvaz, a city in the southwest. Later on Thursday, according to the unofficial ILNA news agency, the club’s chairman, Hamidreza Garshasbi, resigned.

One of the biggest challenges to Iran’s ruling clerics since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that put them in power, the protests show no signs of abating. Rights organizations claim that security forces beat and arrested protesters as well as used live ammunition and bird shot on them, with much of the violence being captured on video. Iran executed a person last week for taking part in the demonstrations.

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At least 442 protesters have been killed and more than 18,000 detained since the start of the unrest, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that has been monitoring the protests.

The U.N. Human Rights Council voted Thursday to condemn the crackdown and to create an independent fact-finding mission to investigate alleged abuses, particularly those committed against women and children.

Authorities have blamed the unrest on hostile foreign powers, without providing evidence, and say separatists and other armed groups have attacked security forces. Human Rights Activists in Iran says at least 57 security personnel have been killed, while state media have reported a higher toll.

The protesters say they are fed up 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, stripping off 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 rulers they view 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 country’s people.

The team’s star forward, Sardar Azmoun, who has been vocal about the protests online, was on the bench during the opening match. In addition to Ghafouri, two other former soccer stars have been arrested for expressing support for the protests.

Other Iranian athletes have also been drawn into the struggle.

At a global competition in South Korea in October, Iranian rock climber Elnaz Rekabi competed without donning the required headscarf, a decision that was widely interpreted as showing support for the demonstrations. Upon her return to Iran, protesters gave her a hero’s welcome while she claimed that the action was “unintentional” in a possible coerced interview with state media.

After Iran’s beach soccer team defeated Brazil at an international competition in Dubai earlier this month, the Iranian Football Federation threatened to punish the players on the team. After scoring a goal, one of the players mimicked a female protester cutting off her hair as a way to celebrate.

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