Global sporting organization the World Players Association has threatened to boycott Iranian athletes if Iran fails to spare the life of Navid Afkari, a wrestler who faces execution. At the same time, the United World Wrestling (UWW) organization has begun talks with Iran's Wrestling Federation on the case. The UWW says it intends to speak out against the sentences publicly, but first hopes to engage the Iranian wrestling body in private discussions about the case.
According to reports received by IranWire, the Iranian federation responded to the ruling against Afkari by saying it was a matter for Iran’s judiciary, which it regarded as independent. The federation further stated that it had no links to government agencies or political institutions.
The World Wrestling Union has demanded that Navid Afkari be entitled to the rights all its members enjoy, including freedom of thought and a fair trial. But Brendan Schwab, the Executive Director of the World Players Association (WPA) has said that Alireza Dabir, head of Iran’s Wrestling Federation, continues to refer to Afkab as a “murderer."
Nenad Lalovic, president of the World Wrestling Union, has been a vocal critic of the Iranian Wrestling Federation, and has repeatedly complained about Iranian wrestlers’ refusal to face Israeli opponents, a policy the Islamic Republic has adopted because it does not recognize Israel as a country. "I do not think that even the Palestinian people themselves are aware of all the sacrifices your wrestlers make for their land,” he said in 2017.
Lalovic has repeatedly threatened to suspend Iran for the government’s political interference in the internal affairs of the federation, though he has also been consistent in his attempts to negotiate with Iranian officials and ensure the country’s wrestlers are not left isolated. So his recent attempts to hold talks about Navid Afkari in private first is in keeping with this strategy. However, it remains to be seen how long this silence will last.
On September 2, campaigners including former wrestling champion and activist Sally Roberts contacted United World Wrestling and the International Olympic Committee to inform them of the rulings against Navid Afkari and his two brothers, Vahid and Habib Afkari.
People advocating for justice for the Afkaris, who have been convicted on fabricated charges following forced confessions, contacted the two sporting authorities directly and via Twitter and other social media.
Navid Afkari, who is well known in Shiraz’s wrestling community, was first sentenced to death in a revolutionary court on charges of killing a government official during August 2018 protests in Shiraz and was then given a second death sentence for moharebeh (“waging war on God”) a crime defined by Sharia law, for participating in demonstrations. His brothers Vahid and Habib were sentenced to 54 years and six months in prison and 74 lashes, and 27 years and three months in prison and 74 lashes, respectively. As soon as the sentences were handed down, the judiciary began pressuring the Iranian Wrestling Federation not to respond to the ruling and to urge its members to stay silent on the matter. But outside Iran, support for the wrestler and his brothers has been significant.
Among those speaking out for Afkari are Sydney Olympic freestyle wrestling champion and national team coach Brandon Sly, Frank Schaftler, a three-time world wrestling gold medalist from Germany, Davy Kirby, the chairman of the Wrestling Union Scientific Committee, and American Sally Roberts, whose organization Wrestle Like A Girl advocates for equality for girls and women in wrestling.
The World Players Association (WPA), part of the UNI Global Union, also added its voice to the campaign. On September 8, it released a statement about Navid Afkari: “He has been unjustly targeted by the Iranian authorities who want to make an example out of a popular, high-profile athlete and intimidate others who might dare exercise their human right to participate in a peaceful protest," the statement said.
“Athletes should never be used as political pawns by governments to terrorize and manipulate their citizens, and the entire sporting world should stand together in demanding that Iran overturns Navid’s death sentence, drops the charges and investigates the abuse inflicted on Navid while in custody of the police and the judicial system.”
A Universal Charter for Athletes’ Rights
In 2017, WPA, which brings together 85,000 athletes in more than 100 associations in over 60 countries, launched the Universal Declaration of Player Rights, setting out standards for international sports organizations and federations to live up to their commitments and to uphold, respect, and guarantee the fundamental human rights of athletes around the world.
“The rule books of world sport impose thousands of pages of onerous obligations, but none clearly spell out the internationally recognized human rights of athletes,” said Brendan Schwab, Executive Director of the WPA when the declaration of rights was launched in 2017. “The result is an unjust system of sports law that lacks legitimacy and fails to protect the very people who sit at the heart of sport. We are making it clear that athlete rights can no longer be ignored. They must be able to quickly access justice.”
The WPA, as with many international and national sporting bodies, operates directly under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee. With the support of the International Olympic Committee and its current president, Thomas Bach, it has successfully established itself as an organization advocating for human rights.
The charter upholds the rights of child athletes, the right to free expression and freedom of opinion, the right to “organize and collectively bargain,” the right to protect their identities from being used for commercial means without permission, and the right to privacy and a private life.
Athletes as Pawns
Athletes being used as pawns has a long history in the Islamic Republic. One example is Arash Mirasmaili, who was forced not to compete against an Israeli opponent. Athletes have been harassed and intimidated to ensure they follow the rules set out by Iran’s sports ministry and higher officials. However, many of them have done well out of their acts of loyalty, achieving high status in society and impressive remuneration packages.
A statement by football player Mehdi Torabi, who has played for star team Persepolis and Iran’s national team, perhaps said it all: "The only way to save the country is obedience to the Leader” a message on his T-shirt read, which he proudly displayed to the cameras after scoring for Persepolis in 2019.
"Political interference by governments against athletes, such as Iran's repeated targeting of high-profile athletes for exercising their human rights, must be treated as rogue state behavior,” said Gigi Alford, Director of Sport and Human Rights for the World Players Association and Coordinator of the Sport & Rights Alliance. “Diplomacy behind the scenes is not enough. Athletes from all over the world are standing with Navid and calling on sports bodies and sponsors to join them in making it publicly clear that athlete activism is not a crime and a threat to any athlete anywhere is a threat to all athletes everywhere."
With support from 85,000 athletes around the world, the World Players Association, as part of the UNI Global Union, has a strong influence. The union has threatened to impose sanctions on Iranian athletes if the death sentence for Navid Afkari is not overturned. "Navid has been singled out, tortured and condemned to death because of his participation and success in sport,” said Alford. “The horrific act of executing an athlete can only be regarded as a repudiation of the humanitarian values that underpin sport. It must result in Iran forfeiting its right to be a part of sport’s universal community.”
But so far Iranian sporting officials have ignored threats that their athletes could face ostracization at best, and debilitating sanctions at worst. They insist Afkari is guilty of "premeditated murder," and appear to be willing to ignore their obligations as members of the international athletic community, including the International Olympic Charter.