DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Iran on Thursday arrested a prominent former member of its national soccer team over his criticism of the government as authorities grapple with nationwide protests that have cast a shadow over World Cup competition.
The semi-official news agencies Fars and Tasnim reported that Voria Ghafouri had been arrested for “insulting the national football team and propaganda against the government”.
Ghafouri, who was not chosen to go to the World Cup, has been an outspoken critic of the Iranian authorities throughout his career. He objected to a long-standing ban on female spectators at men’s football matches and to Iran’s confrontational foreign policy, which has led to crippling Western sanctions.
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More recently, he expressed his condolences to the family of a 22-year-old woman whose death while in the custody of Iran’s vice squad sparked the latest protests. In recent days, he also called for an end to the violent crackdown on protests in Iran’s Western Kurdistan region.
The reports of his arrest came ahead of the World Cup match between Iran and Wales on Friday. In Iran’s opening match, a 6-2 defeat to England, members of the Iran national team refused to sing their national anthem and some fans expressed support for the protests.
The protests were ignited by the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman who was arrested by vice police in the capital Tehran. They quickly escalated into nationwide demonstrations calling for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. The western Kurdish region of the country, where both Amini and Ghafouri hail from, was the epicenter of the protests. Shops in the region were closed on Thursday after 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 protests don’t seem to be abating and mark 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 used live ammunition and bird shots on the protesters, beating and arresting them, much of the violence being videotaped.
At least 442 protesters have been killed and more than 18,000 arrested since the unrest began, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that monitors the protests.
The UN Human Rights Council voted on Thursday to condemn the crackdown and to set up an independent fact-finding mission to investigate alleged abuses, particularly those against women and children.
Read more: Iran has a long history of protest and activism
Authorities have blamed the unrest on hostile foreign powers, without providing evidence, and say separatists and other armed groups attacked security forces. Human rights activists in Iran say at least 57 security personnel have been killed, while state media reports a higher number.
The protesters say they are tired of decades of social and political repression, including a strict dress code for women. Young women have played a leading role in the protests, removing the mandatory Islamic headscarf to express their rejection of clerical rule.
Some Iranians actively oppose their own team at the World Cup, associating it with rulers they see as violent and corrupt. Others insist that the national team, made up of players who have spoken out on social media in solidarity with the protests, represents the country’s people.
The team’s star striker, Sardar Azmoun, who has spoken out about the protests online, sat on the bench during the opening game. In addition to Ghafouri, two other former football stars have been arrested for expressing their support for the protests.
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Other Iranian athletes are also involved in the battle.
Iranian mountaineer Elnaz Rekabi took part in an international competition in South Korea in October without wearing the mandatory headscarf, a move widely seen as support for the protests. On her return to Iran, she was hailed as a hero by protesters, even though she told state media the move was “accidental” in an interview that may have been given under duress.
Earlier this month, Iran’s football federation threatened to punish players from its beach soccer team after beating Brazil in an international match in Dubai. One of the players had been celebrating after scoring a goal by mimicking a female protester cutting off her hair.
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