Amid ongoing unrest across Iran, local media report that Iranian judiciary officials have issued a prosecution order for the popular footballer Ali Karimi, in a sign that the government is stepping up their suppression of dissenting voices.
Protests across Iran have entered their third week following the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.
As protesters continue to gather in the streets and celebrities become emboldened to make stronger comments of support for them, officials have tightened the screws on those who do speak out.
Footballer Ali Karimi, a World Cup veteran who delighted Iranians throughout his glittering 18-year career, has been accused of being one of the "main leaders of recent riots" and "sympathizing with the enemy." Officials have now confiscated his properties and torn down his statue.
"Ali Karimi will be prosecuted for being in solidarity with the enemy and encouraging riots," Rahbord, a news site close to Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) reported on Tuesday. "A judicial investigation about Ali Karimi's actions during the recent riots is now being conducted with the supervision of the judicial authority."
State media claimed last week that Karimi, known amongst his fans as the "magician" of Iranian football, was trying to get Canadian residency, and accused him of "encouraging people to riot.”
However, Karimi already has citizenship in the United Arab Emirates and the United States, so he does not need Canadian residency to live outside of Iran.
Karimi's relatives have told IranWire that he had no intention of leaving Iran forever and that he travelled to the UAE for “personal business” — a routine trip he has made regularly since gaining residency years ago.
His intention to return to Iran was clear from the fact he still has properties in the country.
Iran's security and judiciary officials have already started confiscating his properties. Photos published last week showed Karimi’s house in Lavasan, Tehran, sealed on the orders of a local prosecutor.
The authorities’ have also torn down a statue of him in his hometown of Karaj. Protesters responded by spraying his name on the empty plinth.
The IRGC has also called for Karimi’s arrest while IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency urged police in Tehran to deal with what they referred to as "agitators".
During his career, Karimi, 43, has captained Iran's national team, as well as Persepolis and Steel Azin football clubs. He has scored 127 goals and was Asian Footballer of the Year in 2004.
After the death in morality police custody of Mahsa Amini, Karimi wrote to his followers on Twitter: “A homeland is waiting for you. Do not let innocent blood be shed.”
He also voiced support for the protesters through his Instagram account and has gained more than three million followers on the site since the most recent round of protests began.
In an attempt to discredit his fans, Iran Newspaper, the official publication of the Islamic Republic, has labelled his social media followers as “fake" and "bots''. The campaign against the "magician" seems to have a broader and more important goal from the officials' side. They do not want Karimi to return to Iran.
IranWire understands that Karimi has no intention of completely leaving his country behind. Despite the news which the Islamic Republic spread about his desire to live elsewhere, Karimi has ignored opportunities to leave Iran and instead has stayed in the country.
Part of the efforts to keep Karimi out of Iran is due to the possible consequences of his return and his potential arrest by security agencies.
Meanwhile, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on Iranians to ignore celebrities like Karimi who have been supporting people the protests.
"They are not important,” said Khamenei of Iranian celebrities who have shown public support for the protesters, in his first public statement since the protests first broke out. “We should not care what they say.”
Security services have tried to restrict public access to social media and the internet more widely. Since their efforts have been unsuccessful, the authorities have tried to silence celebrities at the source by threatening to "take action" against them. However, the public is still finding ways to access what celebrities are saying online.