Just two months after the state-sponsored execution of Shirazi wrestling champion Navid Afkari, another athlete has been arrested in Iran and could face the death penalty – this time over an Instagram post.

Bodybuilding coach Reza Tabrizi, who is disabled, was forced into a police car in front of dozens of onlookers on Thursday, November 5. The former Paralympian stands accused of “insulting the Eighth Imam” for a social media post in which he asked why sports facilities were being closed due to Covid-19, but not the Imam Reza Shrine.

Tabrizi’s post was met with backlash from religious hardliners, including the regime cleric Morteza Mustafazadeh, who called for his execution, and from protesters who gathered around the Reza Tabrizi Sports Club in Mashhad on Thursday. An angry mob ransacked the club after Tabrizi’s arrest. Later on that same day, the state-controlled Fars News Agency confirmed the arrest and added that investigations are “ongoing”.

Tabrizi, who won a silver medal for powerlifting in the 2011 New Zealand World Para Athletics Championships, has since deleted the offending Instagram post. He also issued a public apology in which he wrote: “Love of our religious saints runs in the blood of my family and if as a result of a moment of negligence I have hurt your feelings, I do sincerely apologize and ask your forgiveness.”

This, however, was not enough for religious extremists in Mashhad. Some hardliners went on to stage sit-ins at the Imam Reza Shrine on Sunday evening and Monday morning, during which they shouted out chants calling for his death. Social media users have also continued to call for Tabrizi to be executed.

Prominent Iranian lawyer Mohammad Hossein Aghasi, who has represented many civilians accused of “insulting the sacred” in the past, points out that plenty of Iranian health specialists, doctors and nurses and Ministry of Health employees have recently made the same complaint as Tabrizi. Record numbers of Iranians are dying from coronavirus on a day-to-day basis but the authorities have insisted on keeping religious shrines open.

Furthermore, Aghasi says, the charges against Tabrizi ought to fall flat because “there is no explicit and direct insult to people’s religious beliefs. As Reza Tabrizi stated in his apology, and as he will naturally repeat in his defense in court, he did not intentionally insult the Imams. The judge must handle this case in good faith to prevent anything untoward from happening.”

Article 262 of the Iranian constitution states that a person found to have insulted the Prophet Muhammad or the Shiite Imams can be sentenced to death. But the lawyer Musa Barzin Khalifelou has also asserted the law does not apply in Tabrizi’s case.

“In various clauses of this Article,” he told IranWire, “it is stated that in order for the death sentence to be issued, it must be proven that the accused really intended to make a direct insult to the Prophet or the Imams.”

Khalifelou also notes that this particular crime and its associated “Sharia punishment” are among those subject to alleviation in Islamic law if the person concerned repents. “If the accused repents of his action before proving his guilt,” he said, “they should no longer seek to prove his guilt and any punishment should be revoked."

It seems the demand for Reza Tabrizi to face the death penalty by a small number of religious fundamentalists in Iran does not stand up to legal scrutiny. But given the regular impunity with which judges in Iran flout their own penal code when issuing sentences, this will come as little comfort to Tabrizi or his supporters.

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