Iran arrested a prominent former member of its national soccer team on Thursday over his criticism of the government, as authorities grapple with nationwide protests that have cast a shadow over its World Cup run.
The semi-official news agencies Fars and Tasnim reported that Voria Ghafouri was arrested for “insulting the national football team and promoting government propaganda”.
Ghafouri, who was not selected for the World Cup, has been an outspoken critic of the Iranian authorities throughout his career. He opposed the long-standing ban on women from men’s football, as well as Iran’s confrontational foreign policy, which has been hurt by Western sanctions.
More recently, he expressed his condolences to the family of a 22-year-old woman whose death while in custody by Iran’s morality police sparked the latest protests.. In recent days, he has also called for an end to the violent crackdown on 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 game, a 6-2 loss to England, members of the Iranian national team refused to sing along to their national anthem, with some fans expressing support for the protests..
The protests started on September 16. the dead Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by the morality 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 are from, has been the epicenter of the protests. Shops in the region were closed on Thursday following calls for a general strike.
Iranian officials did not say whether Ghafouri’s activism led to him not being selected for the national team. He plays for Khuzestan Foolad in the southwestern city of Ahvaz. The club’s chairman, Hamidreza Garshasbi, resigned later on Thursday, the semi-official ILNA news agency reported, without giving any details.
The protests show no signs of abating and are one of the biggest challenges to Iran’s ruling clerics since 1979. the Islamic revolutions that brought them to power. Rights groups say security forces used live ammunition and birdshot at protesters, beating them and arresting them, much of the violence captured on video.
At least 442 protesters have been killed and more than 18,000 detained since the unrest began, according to Iranian human rights activists monitoring the protests.
The UN Human Rights Council on Thursday voted to condemn the crackdown and establish an independent fact-finding mission to investigate alleged abuse, particularly against women and children.
Authorities have blamed hostile foreign forces for the unrest, without providing evidence, and separatists and other armed groups have attacked security forces. Human rights activists in Iran say at least 57 security personnel have been killed, with state media reporting a higher death toll.
Protesters say they are tired of decades of social and political repression, including a strict dress code for women. Young women played a central role in the protests, removing the mandatory Islamic headscarf to express their opposition to clerical rule.
Some Iranians actively oppose their team at the World Cup, associating it with rulers they see as violent and corrupt. Others argue that the national team, made up of players who stand in solidarity with the protests on social media, represents the people of the country.
The team’s star forward Sardar Azmoun, who has been vocal about the protests online, sat on the bench during the opening game. In addition to Ghafouri, two other former soccer stars who expressed support for the protests were arrested.
Other Iranian athletes were also included in the fray.
Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi competed in an international competition in South Korea in October without wearing the mandatory headscarf. She received a hero’s welcome protesters back in Iran, although she told state media the move was an “unintentional” interview that could have been given under duress.
Earlier this month, Iran’s football federation threatened to fine players from its beach soccer team after they defeated Brazil in an international competition in Dubai. One of the players celebrated a goal by imitating a protester who cut off her hair.