DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Iran arrested a prominent member of its soccer team on Thursday for criticizing the government as authorities battled nationwide protests that overshadowed their World Cup. The world.
The semiofficial news agencies Fars and Tasnim reported that Voria Ghafouri was arrested for “insulting the national football team and lying against the government.”
Ghafouri, who was not selected for the World Cup, has been critical of the Iranian authorities throughout his career. He opposed the long-standing ban on female spectators at men’s football matches as well as Iran’s foreign policy of conflict, which has led to the collapse of Western sanctions.
Recently, he expressed his condolences to the family of a 22-year-old woman whose death while in the custody of Iran’s morality police sparked recent protests.. In recent days he has also called for an end to violent protest action in the western Kurdistan region of Iran.
Reports of his arrest emerged ahead of Friday’s World Cup match between Iran and Wales. In Iran’s opening game, defeated 6-2 in England, members of the Iranian national team refused to sing their national anthem and some fans showed support for the protest..
The protest was fueled by the death of Sept. 16 Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman arrested by the moral police in the capital, Tehran. They quickly became a nationwide protest demanding the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. The western Kurdish region of the country, where Amini and Ghafouri are from, has been at the center of protests. Shops were closed in the area on Thursday following calls for a general strike.
Iranian officials have not said whether Ghafouri’s performance was the reason for not selecting him for the national team. He plays for Khuzestan Foolad in the southwestern city of Ahvaz. The group’s chairman, Hamidreza Garshasbi, resigned later on Thursday, the semiofficial ILNA news agency reported, without elaborating.
The protests show no sign of abating, and are one of the biggest challenges to Iran’s ruling clerics since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought them to power. Rights groups say security forces have used rifles and birdshot against protesters, as well as beating and arresting them, with much of the violence captured on video.
At least 442 protesters have been killed and more than 18,000 arrested since the unrest began, according to Human Rights Watch in Iran, a group that monitored the protests.
The United Nations Human Rights Council voted Thursday to condemn the crackdown and establishing an independent fact-finding mission to investigate alleged abuses, particularly against women and children.
Officials blamed the violence on hostile countries, without providing evidence, and said separatists and other armed groups had attacked security forces. Human Rights Watch in Iran said at least 57 security personnel were killed, while state media reported a higher number.
Protesters say they are tired of decades of social and political pressure, including strict dress codes imposed on women. Young women have been at the forefront of the protest, removing the obligatory Muslim headscarf to show their rejection of clerical rule.
Some Iranians have turned against their team at the World Cup, associating it with rulers they see as violent and corrupt. Others insist that the national team, which includes players who have spoken out on social media in solidarity and protest, represents the people of the country.
The club’s player, Sardar Azmoun, who spoke about the protest online, was on the bench during the opening match. Apart from Ghafouri, two other former football players have been arrested for supporting the protest.
Some Iranian athletes are also drawn into this fight.
Iranian stone thrower Elnaz Rekabi competed without wearing the mandatory headscarf at an international competition in South Korea in October, a move widely seen as supporting the protests. He received a hero’s welcome from the protesters when they returned to Iran, as he told state media that the move was “intentional” in an interview that may have been given under pressure.
Earlier this month, Iran’s football federation threatened to punish the players of their beach soccer team after defeating Brazil in an international tournament in Dubai. One of the players had celebrated after scoring a goal by imitating a female opponent cutting her hair.