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Can the International Wrestling Organization Prevent the Execution of an Iranian Wrestler?

September 2, 2020
Payam Younesipour
7 min read
There have been widespread online protests against the death sentence handed down to former wrestler Navid Afkari
There have been widespread online protests against the death sentence handed down to former wrestler Navid Afkari
IranWire appealed to United World Wrestling about Navid Afkari’s case
IranWire appealed to United World Wrestling about Navid Afkari’s case
Will the International Olympic Committee help save Navid Afkari's life?
Will the International Olympic Committee help save Navid Afkari's life?

Another death sentence has been announced in Iran. In fact, Navid Afkari, a former wrestler, has been handed down two death sentences. 

The news has been both widely reported by media agencies and discussed on social media and among legal professionals. 

Afkari has been sentenced to death for the murder of a government official during the August 2018 protests in Shiraz. Under Sharia law, he can be handed down a sentence of qisas [“retribution”] for murder. He faces another death sentence after a Revolutionary Court found him guilty of moharebeh [waging war against God] for participating in the protests. His two brothers, Vahid and Habib, have been given sentences of 54 years and six months in prison and 74 lashes and 27 years and three months in prison and 74 lashes, respectively. 

The brothers are accused of killing Hasan Turkman, a member of the Shiraz Basij, the volunteer wing of the Revolutionary Guards, in August 2018. Turkman was also an intelligence office employee for the city's water organization.

Online protests and campaigns against the sentences have gained momentum in recent days, with growing support for Navid Afkari to be pardoned, for both the murder and the charge of moharebeh. However, few athletes have taken a stand on the wrestler’s case, with many turning a blind eye to a system that, under the Sharia law principle of qisas, allows an individual to be killed in retaliation for being found guilty of murder. The law allows for the guilty individual to be deprived of the right to live under any pretext. But apart from Iran’s sporting community, what are other international sporting bodies doing? Can the United World Wrestling organization do anything for Navid Afkari?



It’s useful to consider the history of serious crimes linked to athletes in Iran. In May 2010, footballer Ali Akbarian was arrested on charges of drug possession (crack cocaine). Akbarian, who played for both Esteghlal and Persepolis, had become the "Romario" of Iranian football in the 1990s, in the days when Iranian stadiums gave football players the nicknames of internationally-acclaimed footballers. Along with Akbarian being given the name of the famous Brazilian footballer, other players were dubbed Iran's Maldini, Bebeto, and Chilavert. At the time of his arrest, Akbarian had such a large volume of drugs in his possession that the judge did not have to search for a legal clause to hand down a death sentence. And yet, he was saved from execution. But how? 

When news broke in 2015 that Akbarian’s death sentence was about to be issued, prominent football player and coach Ali Parvin personally went to the prosecutor's office and met with the judge. People close to him quote that this national symbol of pride and passion cried in front of the judge and had told him, "I will kneel in front of you."

He had bent down when the judge shrugged his shoulders and changed Ali Akbarian's sentence to life imprisonment. Later, on November 27, 2018, Ali Parvin was seen in the parliament with a folder in his hand; he had gone to secure another commutation for Ali Akbarian.

Today, while Navid Afkari faces execution, Alireza Dabir, the president of the Iranian Wrestling Federation, has not only been banned from commenting on the case, but has even drawn a line for the Iranian wrestling community, stating that no one has the right to comment on Afkari. 

However, Greco-Roman wrestling champions Mohammad Reza Garaei, Mohammad Ali Garaei and Mehdi Aliyari, as well as Vahid Bana, the former Iranian National Judo Team captain, have posted photos of Navid Afkari on social media calling for his death sentence to be withdrawn. They are the exception. The survival of footballer Ali Akbarian was largely thanks to the intervention of celebrity supporters, including star athletes. But today, most celebrity athletes remain quiet, not daring to put themselves forward to help bring an end to a double death sentence for a wrestler.


Silenced by Threats

The security situation around Navid Afkari's case has spread to his contemporaries. One of them told IranWire: "The atmosphere in Shiraz has become very tense about Navid and his family. Anyone who was once Navid's coach or wrestled with him had been contacted either by security agencies or by the wrestling federation. They have been silenced by threats."

It is true that Navid Afkari never made it to the national team in a sport with more than 500,000 official and registered athletes, but he was well known in his own province and city. Between 2004 and 2006, he was the Greco-Roman wrestling champion of Shiraz. When he left school to become a laborer and plasterer in the building industry, he viewed wrestling as a personal sport. He wanted to help support his family and no longer had enough time for professional sports.

One coach's persistence, however, returned him to the mat five years later. From 2016 to 2018, he not only won a position in the provincial team, but even reached the national team selection stage. In 2017 and 2018, he was on the verge of joining the national team but failed to qualify in the selection games. Still, his progress meant he was repeatedly invited to the Iranian national camps as a training opponent for Mohammad Ali Garaei, another Shirazi wrestler who joined the national team.

Navid Afkari holds as important a role in the sport of wrestling as Ali Akbarian did in Iranian football. Ali Akbarian was arrested on a drugs charge, and his case was not considered to be matter of national security. After Ali Parvin and several other Iranian football stars’ appeals, Akbarian’s sentence was reduced to 20 years. But the Iranian wrestling community appears unwilling to do the same. 

IranWire contacted United World Wrestling (UWW) and the International Olympic Committee for a comment and to see whether the two bodies were preparing to make a stand, explaining the specifics of the case to both. On August 31, IranWire wrote to UWW, the world's highest wrestling authority and said: "Iran's judiciary has twice sentenced a wrestler to death. He was once sentenced to death for insulting the leader of the Islamic Republic and again for an unsubstantiated charge of murder. Human rights organizations have stated that the sentence violates civil rights and argue that there is insufficient evidence that Afkari has committed murder. It is also important to note that Navid Afkari says that Iranian security agents have tortured him to make him confess.” IranWire appealed to UWW to help protect the lives of wrestlers, athletes it essentially represents. 

At the end of the letter, the United World Wrestling was asked if the lives of fellow athletes were important to them.

The International Olympic Committee will soon hold a sports arbitration court between the World Judo Federation and the suspended Judo Federation of Iran. Iran hopes to prove that the policies of the Islamic Republic have no influence on the decisions of its sports federations. This court will be set up to assess whether that is true.

IranWire contacted the International Olympic Committee for its response to the news that Iran plans to execute a professional athlete. As an athlete who took part in a sport that falls under its charter, IranWire urged it to take a stand. “The Olympic Charter affirms freedom and human rights for all athletes around the world,” the appeal said, and the committee is expected to uphold these principles. “Will you use your power to save his life?”

IranWire's efforts to discuss the case of Navid Afkari with these two sports institutions have so far been unsuccessful, but these efforts continue. If either of the two organizations, both supervising bodies overseeing Afkari’s sporting career, took action, they could possibly rescue him. But if they do, there is also a chance that the Iranian wrestling community could become a new target for authorities, including from the judiciary of the Islamic Republic.


Related Coverage: 

Tortured and at Risk of Execution for Taking Part in 2018 Protests




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