DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran on Thursday arrested a prominent former member of its national soccer team for his criticism of the government as authorities grapple with nationwide protests that have cast a shadow over their World Cup competition.
The semi-official Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported that Voria Ghafouri was arrested for “insulting the national football team and making anti-government propaganda”.
Ghafouri, who was not chosen to go to the World Cup, has been an outspoken critic of the Iranian authorities throughout his career. He has opposed a longstanding ban on female spectators at men’s soccer matches, as well as Iran’s confrontational foreign policy, which has led to crippling Western sanctions.
Most recently, he expressed sympathy for the family of a 22-year-old woman whose death while in the custody of Iran’s morality police sparked the latest protests.. In recent days he has also called for an end to a violent repression of the protests. in the Western Kurdistan region of Iran.
Reports of his arrest came ahead of Friday’s World Cup match between Iran and Wales. In Iran’s opening match, a 6-2 loss to England, members of the Iranian national team refused to sing their national anthem, and some fans expressed support for the protests..
The protests began with the death on September 16 of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman arrested by the moral police in the capital, Tehran. They quickly turned into nationwide demonstrations calling for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. The western Kurdish region of the country, where both Amini and Ghafouri are from, has been the epicenter of the protests. Shops closed in the region on Thursday following calls for a general strike.
Iranian officials have not said whether Ghafouri’s activism was a factor in not choosing him for the national team. He plays for the Khuzestan Foolad team in the southwestern city of Ahvaz. The club’s president, Hamidreza Garshasbi, resigned later on Thursday, the semi-official ILNA news agency reported, without elaborating.
The protests show no sign of abating and mark one of the biggest challenges for Iran’s ruling clerics since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought them to power. Rights groups say security forces have used unleashed live ammunition and birdshot at 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 detained since the start of the unrest, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that has been monitoring the protests.
The UN Human Rights Council voted Thursday to condemn the crackdown. and create an independent fact-finding mission to investigate alleged abuses, particularly those committed against women and children.
Authorities have blamed the unrest on hostile foreign powers, without providing evidence, and say separatists and other armed groups have attacked security forces. Human rights activists in Iran say at least 57 security personnel have been killed, while state media have reported higher numbers.
Protesters say they are fed up after decades of social and political repression, including a strict dress code imposed on women. Young women have played a prominent role in the protests, removing their mandatory Islamic veil to express their rejection of clerical rule.
Some Iranians are actively supporting their own team in 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 on social media in solidarity with the protests, represents the people of the country.
The team’s star striker Sardar Azmoun, who has spoken out about the online protests, was on the bench during the opening game. In addition to Ghafouri, two other former soccer stars have been arrested for expressing their support for the protests.
Other Iranian athletes have also joined the fight.
Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi competed without the mandatory headscarf in an international competition in South Korea in October, a move seen as an expression of support for the protests. She got a hero’s welcome of protesters returning to Iran, even as he told state media the move was “involuntary” in an interview that may have been given under duress.
Earlier this month, Iran’s soccer federation threatened to punish players on its beach soccer team after it defeated Brazil in an international competition in Dubai. One of the players had celebrated after scoring a goal by imitating a protester cutting her hair.