September 8, 2021 | Iran International

Why The Iranian Regime’s Murder Of A Champion Wrestler Matters

September 8, 2021 | Iran International

Why The Iranian Regime’s Murder Of A Champion Wrestler Matters

This Sunday, September 12, will mark one year since Iran’s clerical regime executed the champion Greco-Roman wrestler Navid Afkari for expressing opposition to the religious dictatorship in Iran.

His fate galvanized the sporting world in an unprecedented way and prompted Iranian and other athletes to urge world sports organizations to kick the Islamic Republic out of international events.

Afkari was accused of participating in an anti-regime demonstration in the city of Shiraz in 2018. The regime framed him, claiming he murdered a security official who had tracked the protesters.

The Center for Human Rights in Iran noted prior to Afkari’s execution that his death sentence was “based on false evidence, torture and forced false confessions.”

Afkari’s plea issued shortly before his hurried early morning hanging in Abed-Abaad Prison captures the regime’s desperate efforts to take the sting out of the burgeoning campaign to save his life.

“There is not one shred of evidence in this damned case that shows I’m guilty,” the 27-year-old said, adding that his judges were simply “looking for a neck for their rope.”

Given the shockingly high number of executions carried out by Iran’s regime, why was it Afkari’s execution that electrified the international community like no other hanging since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979?

The answer can be found in Iranians’ special love for wrestling, which also helps to explain why his fellow countrymen feel exceptionally strongly about Afkari.

Wrestling clubs can be found in practically every neighborhood in Iran. The venerable sport of grappling, which dates back at least 15,000 years, is the equivalent of basketball, football and baseball in the US. The country has won the overwhelming majority of its Olympic medals in wrestling. Iranian’s most popular sporting hero of the 20th century, the late Gholamreza Takhti, won a gold medal in wrestling at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.

All of this helps to explain why the state’s murder of a champion wrestler has the potential to inject revolutionary energy into the population. The regime fears major popular unrest motivated by Afkari as a symbolic hero.

The international reaction to Afkari’s case can in part be explained by the enormous global popularity of mixed martial arts and other ombat sports. Many wrestlers, after decorated college and Olympic careers, enter mixed martial arts competitions.

In the lead-up to Afkari’s execution, his plightc captivated the attention of global personalities such as Dana White, president of the enormously popular Ultimate Fighting Championship mixed martial arts organization, who urged Tehran to stay the execution.

White was joined by elite American wrestlers ranging from Olympic wrestler Ben Askren to world champion Kyle Dake to two-time world bronze medalist Sally Roberts to Olympic bronze medalist J’den Cox and world silver medalist Thomas Gilman, to name a few.

Askren played a critical role in Afkari’s story going viral on social media when he tweeted an article in early September to his then-349,000 followers, who include a who’s who of the wrestling and mixed martial arts worlds.

The German government, the head of the International Olympic Committee, former President Donald Trump, the United Kingdom’s minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth and many other politicians sent urgent appeals to Tehran not to move forward with the execution.

However, not enough international pressure was brought against the regime to persuade it to relent.

But the popular movement against the regime, spearheaded by athletes, only grew. Elite athletes dared to become politically organized. Decorated competitors from various disciplines, including wrestling, judo, soccer and karate, have drawn attention to the gross human rights violations committed by Iran’s rulers, for example their refusal to allow women to compete in wrestling.

Iranians’ special commitment to wrestling motivated famous athletes abroad to speak out. After Navid’s execution, a group of Iranian athletes and the Iranian-American journalist and women’s rights campaigner Masih Alinejad established United for Navid to draw attention to the clerical regime’s abuse of Iranian athletes and their human rights.

United for Navid urges the International Olympic Committee and world governments to bar Iran’s regime from participation in international sporting events. This would send a powerful message to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and to new president Ebrahim Raisi, who green-lighted Afkari’s execution as the head of the judiciary, that their crimes will not go unpunished.

Iranian athletes would continue to compete in global sports events, but not under the banner of the Islamic Republic. They would be recognized as neutral participants unaffiliated with any country.

Afkari continues to be a symbol of resistance against the Islamic Republic. Having witnessed multiple revolts in the last four years, the regime remains vulnerable to popular protests and unrest. The opposition movement continues to grow. More athletes and sports fans are joining United for Navid.

The campaign to remember Afkari also took Iran’s regime to task for permitting a marksman to compete in the Tokyo Olympics, a marksman who aided the US-designated terrorist entity Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in its war against Syrian dissidents. The exposure of Javad Foroughi sparked widespread criticism in the media and from other Olympic athletes.

The international community needs to exert pressure on the IOC and other sports organizations to isolate Iran’s regime, like they did the IOC banned the now-defunct racist Apartheid regime in South Africa and the previous Taliban-controlled government of Afghanistan because of its exclusion of women. The IOC and every sports federation should establish a committee to identify athletes who are members of US-designated terrorist entities and ban athletes like Foroughi from competition.

Navid Afkari matters because he sought to end corruption in a country by exercising the universally recognized right of assembly. He paid the ultimate price for his dissent. The world must remember him and punish the regime that murdered him one year ago.

Sardar Pashaei served as the head coach of Iran’s Greco-Roman wrestling team and was an individual world champion Greco-Roman wrestler. Pashaei helps run the United for Navid campaign. Benjamin Weinthal was New York University’s first All-American wrestler and is a fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Alireza Nader is a senior fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Sardar, Benjamin and Alireza on Twitter @sardar_pashaei, @BenWeinthal and @AlirezaNader. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues.

Read in Iran International

Issues:

Iran Iran Human Rights