Security forces have cracked down on supporters of the Unity for Navid campaign, which calls for an end to the harassment, jailing, torture and harsh punishment, including death sentences, for athletes.
IranWire has been in contact with a source who said that authorities had pressured the families of athletes, coaches and referees who expressed support for the campaign, which was set up following the execution of Shirazi wrestler Navid Afkari on September 12. The campaign also calls for the international community to boycott Iranian sports in protest against this unjust treatment.
As political activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and athletes know all too well, the Islamic Republic has long run its own campaign, using intimidation, threats, and violence to silence people.
IranWire contacted some of the athletes who supported the campaign, but they declined to comment, fearing for the safety of their families.
In June 1984, Assadollah Lajevardi, the head of Evin Prison at the time, gathered inmates in the prison’s main hall. He pulled a man called Habib Khabiri out of the ranks and said to him: "I do not want you to go on television and give an interview to repent; just repent here and you’ll be released immediately!"
A voice shouted out from the crowd of women prisoners gathered in the hall: "Habib! Die like a man."
Habib Khabiri was the captain of the national youth football team and also played for the national team. Before the revolution, he joined the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization [MKO], also known as the People's Mojahedin Organization and by the acronym MEK. Like many members of the opposition movement, he was arrested in the years after the revolution. His arrest came in 1982. The group faced particularly brutal harassment throughout the 1980s, and in 1988 thousands of MEK followers were killed in a mass execution.
No one has ever disclosed the name of the woman who shouted out for Khabiri to “die like a man,” but it is rumored that it was Habib Khabiri’s fiancée, who had been arrested at the same time he was. Habib Khabiri was shot dead on June 21, 1984, along with his fiancée.
On the wall of one of the solitary confinement cells in Gohardasht Prison, the words "God, enlighten me so that I can die like Abdi, in your path" stayed etched on the wall for years.
The words were engraved by a woman who was in the prison at the same time as Forouzan Abdi, who played for the Iranian women's national volleyball team. She was first arrested in 1982 and charged with membership to the MEK. Agents beat her, tortured her and forced her to confess. Authorities detained Abdi's entire family for six months, stating that their relation to Abdi was enough to charge them. Finally, in 1988, Abdi was hanged as part of the massacre of thousands of political prisoners.
When guards came to take Forouzan Abdi to execution, she said a simple sentence: "They are tired of us, they want to set us free.”
It is not known what happened to her family.
Houshang Montazer Al-Mahdi was also a member of the MEK. On August 13, 1981, he won the gold medal at the national wrestling championship, but two nights later, on August 15, he was arrested along with his father. One month later, Houshang Montazer al-Mahdi was executed. His father was released.
Although there were many stories of brutal injustice throughout the 1980s, these stories are not confined to that decade. For years, the leaders of the Islamic Republic have worked hard to extract the Iranian sports community from what they think of as the “pre-revolutionary school” and a culture of athletes being socially aware, political animals. The goal was to build a sports community devoid of political or social views.
As this process of de-politicization began to take hold, athletes began to leave Iran, only to find their families came under pressure.
When it comes to athletes’ stories of migration and asylum, there is no one more famous than weightlifter Naim Suleymanoglu. Born in Bulgaria to a Turkish family, he was not able to compete at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where many people expected he would win a gold medal, due to Bulgaria joining an Eastern bloc boycott. Suleymanoglu later fled Bulgaria, seeking refuge in Turkey in 1986, and won a gold medal two years later at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, breaking the world records for the snatch lift and clean and jerk lift by 30kg.
He won the World Championship twice for the Bulgarian national team and three times for the Turkish national team. He is the only weightlifter in history to have won the Olympic title three times in a row. Despite his defection, ”Hercules Naim,” as he came to be known, and his family was never threatened by the Bulgarian government.
But the same cannot be said for numerous Iranian athletes, including Saeed Mollaei, a former Iranian national team judoka who has sought refuge in Germany, and whose family has been harassed and threatened by security officials in Iran.
Posting on Instagram in February 2020, Iranian chess grandmaster Mitra Hejazipour said she had left Iran because she didn’t want to live under “hypocrisy, lies, injustice and flattery” and described herself as “one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran.” She wrote about what it was like to live where the hijab was obligatory, the constant presence of security guards when she traveled to compete, and the difficulty of not being able to shake hands during competitions or when receiving awards because Iranian female athletes are bound by a “no touch” rule.
Mobin Kahrazeh, a member of the Iranian national boxing team, spoke of the constant threats and interrogation his family in Iran faced after he took refuge in Austria.
In September 2019, when paralympic archer Pouria Jalalipour refused to return to Iran after a trip to Germany and the Netherlands, Mohammad Hosseinpour, secretary of the Iranian Veterans and Disabled Federation, said: "Athletes in all expedition teams are under the intense control of security agents from the Ministry of Sports and Youth, but this tactic does not work very well in European countries.” He added that athletes who have family members living abroad should not be allowed to visit them.
Revolutionary Guards agents forced Kiumars Bayat, the father of Women's World Chess champion and referee Shohreh Bayat now based in the United Kingdom, was forced to quit as chairman of the Gilan Province Chess Association and as a board member for the Sepidrood Rasht Sports Club.
Sister and brother chess players Dorsa and Borna Derakhshani also have a story of intimidation and pressure. Borna played chess against an Israeli opponent, and Dorsa faced her opponents without wearing a hijab. As a result, security agencies raided the Derakhshani family house, interrogated their father and other relatives, and charged the siblings with possible links to spying services. Eventually, they left Iran. Dorsa Derakhshani currently plays for the United States Chess Federation and Borna Derakhshani plays for the English Chess Federation.
Then there’s the farewell story of Reza Mehmandoust, the two-time winner of the title of the best Taekwondo instructor in the world. On October 11, 2011, when he was head coach of the Iranian national Taekwondo team, he said in an interview with Radio Javan: "I am not requiring an unusual right. I ask: do I have to go to the cemetery for you to see who I am? I have said I wanted the same rights that the National Olympic Committee had approved for me. My child is sick, he needs medicine and treatment." His son died the following year, in February, and Mehmandoust left Iran, becoming the head coach of the Azerbaijani national team. When he left, Mohammad Reza Poladgar, a cleric and president of the Iranian Taekwondo Federation, called him a “mercenary.”
In December 2009, it was announced that Alireza Firouzja, who won the Iranian Chess Championship at the ages 12, had taken asylum in France. In response, several Iranian parliamentarians tabled a proposal to revoke the citizenship of athletes who seek refuge in another country.
From Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s ban on Iranians competing with Israeli athletes and his firm stance on the mandatory hijab to his verbal order for that athletes not shake hands with the opposite sex at international events, have put Iran’s athletes under constant pressure. Those who have sought refuge abroad are still under pressure, and so are their families.
Even with significant efforts to keep athletes away from politics and political and events — via orders of the most powerful person in the Islamic Republic — many of them do become politically engaged, and manage to influence and have an impact on others, joining and showing support for campaigns and, crucially, making their voices heard.