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Afkari’s Execution Will Leave Iranian Athletes Out in the Cold

September 13, 2020
Natasha Schmidt
5 min read
Navid Afkari was executed by hanging on September 12, 2020
Navid Afkari was executed by hanging on September 12, 2020
For years, women have been banned from attending stadiums. In 2019,  Sahar Khodayari, known as the “Blue Girl,” who faced punishment for going to a stadium, took her own life
For years, women have been banned from attending stadiums. In 2019, Sahar Khodayari, known as the “Blue Girl,” who faced punishment for going to a stadium, took her own life

The execution of champion wrestler Navid Afkari on September 12 shocked the world, another reminder for the international community that Iran is a rogue state with no regard for rule of law, human rights or transparency. 

Afkari was executed after being accused of murder and "waging war against God" for allegedly attending a protest in August 2018. He had been forced to confess after enduring torture, although he later retracted his statement.

The execution was shocking for the human rights world, but it also dealt a severe blow to Iranian sports. The country’s many federations could now find themselves ostracized and isolated, their athletes unable to compete on the world stage. International sporting events are unlikely to be held in Iran. What sporting federation would want to be hosted by a country that doesn’t respect the basic dignity enshrined in competitive sport? 

Minky Worden, Human Rights Watch’s Director of Global Initiatives, says all sports federations "need to send a signal to Iran that it won’t be business as usual when they have chosen to execute an athlete. There should be a stronger signal that you play by the rules or you don’t play, and those rules include intentional human rights rules not just sports rules.” 

Along with human rights organizations and campaigners inside and out of Iran, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) expressed shock over Afkari’s execution. “Thomas Bach, the IOC President, had made direct personal appeals to the Supreme Leader and to the President of Iran this week and asked for mercy for Navid Afkari, while respecting the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” the committee said in a statement. “It is deeply upsetting that the pleas of athletes from around the world and all the behind-the-scenes work of the IOC, together with the NOC [National Olympic Committee] of Iran, United World Wrestling and the National Iranian Wrestling Federation, did not achieve our goal. Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Navid Afkari.” FIFA, the international football governing body, supported the statement. 

Human Rights Watch’s Worden said the support for Afkari from both FIFA and IOC had been commendable, in particular their appeals for his life to be spared. It also demonstrated the solidarity between athletes around the world. 

Individual athletes voiced support for Afkari, including Sydney Olympic freestyle wrestling champion and national team coach Brandon Sly, German Frank Schaftler, a three-time world wrestling gold medalist, American wrestler Sally Roberts, who is also the CEO of sports rights organization Wrestle Like A Girl, Mehdi Zeidvand, former member of the Iranian national Greco-Roman wrestling team, and Arvin Bagheri, former captain of the Iranian national youth karate team. 

“Sport is all about human dignity, so it’s not surprising that so many athletes have come forward," Worden said. "In the past there has been a real separation [of human rights from sport] and athletes have not felt that they can’t oppose the death penalty or take a political stand.” That, she says, must change.  

For too long, she said, Iran has been able to get away with behavior that is “out of line,” whether its about human rights or sports. Now the pretense that it is following the norm will no longer be easily digested by international sporting bodies. 


Stripped of Rights, Iranians are Held Hostage in their Own Country

Iranians are increasingly being held hostage in their country, whether it’s dual nationals used as political pawns such as Iranian-British dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, activists jailed for defending the rights of their neighbors, children and communities, or ordinary people handed down hefty sentences for taking part in public protests against escalating prices or unemployment. 

Iran's athletes — its footballers and volleyball players, its wrestlers and Taekwondo athletes — have been subjected to restrictions, threats, and pressure. Athletes have been forced to lose in competitions to avoid competing with Israeli athletes, which the Islamic Republic forbids because it refuses to recognize Israel as an official state, despite the fact that this contravenes international sporting regulations in federations across the globe, including the Olympic Charter. Women have been banned from stadiums.

The Free Nazanin campaign, which works to free Zaghari-Ratcliffe and engage the international community in her case, expressed its sympathy for Afkari's loved ones following the announcement of his execution: "His story shook our family, as many others, for its belligerent cruelty, and its reminder of just what this regime is now capable of as it asserts its control. Our thoughts are with his mother."

Minky Worden says this interlinking of sport and human rights has to be consistently acknowledged, and it is vital that the human rights community remember other cases, and keep the pressure up on ongoing cases. She honors the memory of Sahar Khodayari, known as the “Blue Girl,” who was so so traumatized by the prospect of a horrendous trial that she set herself on fire outside a Tehran courthouse, taking her own life. “It shows that sport is not separate from international human rights,” says Worden. "This is another example of a person who is close to sport who has lost a life because Iran believes it can break the rules and still participate in international sport. I think the international sporting community is going to have to look hard at the standards that they have for participation in sport.” 

She also urged people to remember the long history of sport playing a positive role in promoting and supporting human rights. “Afghanistan was banned from the Olympics for a number of years for executing people in stadiums, and for not allowing women to participate in sport, during the Taliban era. And also Apartheid-era South Africa was banned for sending white-only teams and denying the right to play sport to people of color. So there have been moments in history where the sport world has said: ‘you have to play by the rules or you don’t play.’ And knowing Iran’s grand ambitions to host major international tournaments, including the 2027 AFC tournament and also beach volleyball and FIVB events. Navid Afkari may have been a wrestler, but every sport is going to have to look hard at whether a country that chooses to execute an athlete should be honored by hosting events.” 

In the coming days, Iran’s own sporting federations will be asking some difficult questions about their own commitment to the principles and values enshrined in international sporting charters. Respect is one of these key values, and these federations will no doubt be wondering whether the government of the Islamic Republic is up to the task of putting such a value into practice,. 


Related Coverage

World Wrestling Organization Tries to Save Iranian Athlete Facing Double Death Sentence

Swedish Politicians Stand Together to Demand Iranian Protesters' Release

The World Reacts to the Tragic Death of the “Blue Girl”


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