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Opinion: Iran Must Be Banned From International Sports

Iran -- Navid Afkari, Iranian wrestler has been reportedly sentenced to death for participating in anti-government protests in Shiraz and Kazerun, Iran.

The Islamic Republic in Iran has executed Navid Afkari, a young wrestler with a potentially bright future ahead of him.

Navid’s execution has led to a major outcry among Iranians in Iran and among the diaspora, especially on social media.

The regime executed Navid as a message to the rest of the population- obey us at all costs or face death. But his unjust death must not go answered by the international community.

All sports associations must ban the Islamic Republic from competition in international events, especially the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the United World Wrestling (UWW). Moreover, European countries that still maintain diplomatic ties to the regime must punish its behavior. Navid’s death must not be in vain.

Navid was executed for his participation in the 2018 nationwide protests against the Islamic Republic’s rule over Iran. In reaction to the people’s legitimate demands, the regime unleashed violence against the protestors, killing, injuring, arresting, and torturing thousands of Iranians.

Hoping to make an example of them to prevent future unrest, the authorities accused Navid and his two brothers of participating in protests in Shiraz, one of the largest cities in Iran and a center of the uprising. Tehran has also accused Navid of killing a security guard during the protests.

However, the regime did not provide any proof of its charges, and according to the Voice of America, the brothers’ convictions were based on confessions extracted under torture.

In a recording from his incarceration, Navid stated that he was brutally tortured into confessing to a crime he did not commit.

“The evidence is there if the court wants to investigate [the acts of torture] … There is not one shred of evidence in this damned case that shows I’m guilty. But they don’t want to listen to us. I realized they are looking for a neck for their rope,” said Navid in the recording.

Navid’s death sentence is part of the regime’s strategy of creating societal-wide terror. A recent report by Amnesty International describes the regime’s brutal treatment of peaceful demonstrators, which include “waterboarding, beating, flogging, electric shocks, pepper-spraying genitals, sexual violence, mock executions, pulling out nails and solitary confinement, sometimes for weeks or even months.”

The Islamic Republic, beset by popular rebellion and U.S. maximum pressure, views terror and torture as the best method to ensure its survival.

Navid’s profession as a wrestler (he was also a plasterer) proved to be an advantage in his campaign for justice.

The ancient sport of wrestling is a deeply popular sport in Iran that transcends politics.

The killing of one of Iran’s finest youths is bound to trigger more anger from an already rebellious public. But the regime wanted to make an example of him and is likely to execute more young Iranians already on death row.

The IOC and UWW, which initially expressed outrage over Navid’s death, must follow up their statements by banning the Islamic Republic from all sports competitions. The regime must also be expelled from all international athletic associations.

Pressure from global sporting associations can lead to behavior changes from the regime. For example, in May 2020, Iran’s parliament – in response to the International Judo Federation’s (IJF) suspension last year of Iran’s team for refusing to play against Israel – removed a parliamentary motion that would have prohibited Iranian athletes from competing against Israelis.

Iranian judo athletes, like their national counterparts in wrestling, excel in Judo. Iranians still cannot play against Israelis, but both the public and the Iranian athletic community are increasingly resentful of ideological restrictions that constrain their ability to excel in competitions.

Public criticism from these organizations and threats to expel Iran from sports and wrestling associations and competitions are bound to influence the regime. Even the most die-hard supporters of the Islamic Republic will be upset by Iran’s international isolation from a cherished aspect of Iranian life.

Europe’s punishment of the regime will also complete its global isolation and erase any remaining hope by a cash strapped regime that it will be rescued by European trade and investments. European countries must sanction regime officials responsible for Navid’s execution and refuse to meet with Iranian foreign minister Muhammad Javad Zarif as he begins his European diplomatic tour.

Navid Afkari deserved justice. He was only exercising his natural rights to protest an unjust and cruel regime. But the regime will not stop the execution of Iranians like him unless pressured into doing so. Navid’s life, and the lives of thousands of imprisoned Iranians, depends on censure from the international community.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Radio Farda.
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    Benjamin Weinthal

    Benjamin Weinthal is a research fellow at FDD. A widely published journalist based in Berlin, he serves as FDD’s eyes and ears in Europe. Benjamin’s investigative reporting has uncovered valuable information on Iran’s energy links to European firms and on Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s terror-finance operations.

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    Alireza Nader

    Alireza Nader is a senior fellow at FDD focusing on Iran and U.S. policy in the Middle East. He also researches the Islamic Republic’s systematic repression of religious freedom and currently serves on ADL’s Task Force on Middle East Minorities.