Tehran is Defiant in the Face of Pressure over Wrestler’s Death Sentence

Iranian authorities insist on the execution of champion wrestler Navid Afkari while the world severely objects
Iranian authorities insist on the execution of champion wrestler Navid Afkari while the world severely objects

By Pooya Stone

On Thursday, Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, expressed “extreme concern” over the case of Navid Afkari. Iran’s Supreme Court upheld two death sentences for this champion wrestler last week, ostensibly on charges that he had killed a security guard. But Afkari alleges that he and two brothers were tortured in detention and pressured to issue false confessions. His lawyer and other advocates maintain that the actual basis for his death sentences was his participation in anti-government protests in August 2018, during a period that the Iranian Resistance leader Maryam Rajavi referred to as a “year full of uprisings.” 

Bach’s comments on this case came two days after the World Player’s Association issued a statement calling Afkari’s pending execution a “horrific act” that would contradict “the humanitarian values that underpin sport.”  The statement also expressed confidence in Afkari’s innocence and noted that it appeared as if he had been “unjustly targeted by the Iranian authorities who want to make an example out of a popular, high-profile athlete and intimidate others who might dare exercise their human right to participate in a peaceful protest.” 

A similar sentiment was expressed the previous week by 48 Iranian professional athletes who signed a statement in support of their colleague and his brothers, Vahid and Habib, who have been sentenced to 54 and 27 years in prison, respectively. Their open letter was addressed to the United Nations Secretary-General, two UN human rights authorities, the president of United World Wrestling, and Thomas Bach, the OIC president. It explained that the execution of “athletes, champions, and Olympians” is not a new phenomenon in the Islamic Republic, as the clerical regime “cannot tolerate popular figures” who publicly express dissent. 

The Iranian athletes’ statement called for the imposition of “severe sanctions” on that regime in the event that it refuses to vacate Afkari’s death sentence. The WPA statement then addressed its recommendations specifically to Bach and other leading sports authorities, insisting that Iran should be expelled from world sporting competitions if the execution moves forward. The Iranian judiciary has not yet announced a date for that execution, but there is no clear pattern of behavior when it comes to executions, and Afkari’s unusually high profile could lead to repeated delays or prompt the regime to order him hanged with little advance notice. 

It is not clear whether or not Bach’s remarks were offered directly in response to the WPA, which represents approximately 85,000 athletes from various sports throughout the world. But those remarks stopped short of commitment to Iran’s expulsion, or to any other specific course of action. Still, his expression of concern echoes those which have been offered by other influential voices, including US President Donald Trump, who tweeted a simple request that Iran’s leaders “spare this young man’s life” last week. 

Trump’s message also acknowledged that Afkari’s “sole act was an anti-government demonstration,” but presented no specific threat in connection with the case. Nonetheless, this may have been enough to elicit a response from the Islamic Republic, which broadcast a more than a 10-minute segment on Afkari the next day. The package included footage of his confession without acknowledging the allegations that it was obtained via torture. The Associated Press noted that it resembled the “at least 355 coerced confessions aired by Iranian state television over the last decade.” 

On one hand, the broadcast seems to suggest that Tehran is feeling an unusual amount of pressure over Afkari’s case, and feels the need to immediately counter international advocacy through state media. This may be grounds of optimism among those urging that he be given a commutation or a new trial. But on the other hand, the regime’s defiant response to international pressure may point to the possibility of additional retaliation being visited not just on Afkari but also on other political prisoners, including Western nationals. 

Although there is no clear evidence of a direct connection between the two cases, it is certainly worth noting that the Iranian judiciary took new action in the case of an equally high-profile prisoner on Tuesday, summoning the Iranian-British dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe before the country’s Revolutionary Court to inform her that she was to face new charges in a trial on Sunday. 

Zaghari-Ratcliffe has served more than four years of a five-year sentence and was technically eligible for release in March, though this was not considered by the judiciary. Sunday’s trial on the charge of spreading propaganda against the system stems from a case that was initially opened in October 2017, then closed without resolution. Tehran has a long history of using such revived cases, or altogether new cases, to arbitrarily extend the sentences for political prisoners whom authorities do not wish to release. Being aware of his fact, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard Ratcliffe warned about the potential for this outcome well in advance. 

Now that those warnings have proven prescient, Ratcliffe is pointed to the new case as further proof that his wife’s detention is a hostage situation. Her case has repeatedly been linked to an outstanding debt involving arms sales that were arranged with the previous Iranian government then left incomplete after the Islamic revolution. The United Kingdom has resisted paying that debt, leading to praise from some who view this as a form of ransom and criticism from others who see it as evidence that Downing Street is not doing everything in its power to repatriate hostages. 

With or without the debt settlement, Tehran may demand other concessions from the UK or its allies, including a reduction in pressure over separate cases that are considered purely domestic matters for the Islamic Republic to resolve as it sees fit. As long as such issues remain at an impasse, it will be reasonable to assume that tensions between Iran and the West will continue increasing. And manifestations of that trend may already be emerging both in political and military spheres. 

On Tuesday, it was announced that Margot Arthur, a career civil servant chosen to serve as a commercial adviser to the British embassy in Iran, had been denounced by Iranian authorities as a spy. The associated rhetoric was highly reminiscent of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s 2015 arrest, in that she was identified, without evidence, as “one of the main elements” in a vaguely-defined “infiltration plot.” 

Then, on Thursday, Iran’s Navy began a new round of provocative military exercises near the Strait of Hormuz, accompanied by intimations that American aircraft had intruded into the area of operations, but had withdrawn in response to Iranian threats. The operation comes only two months after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ naval forces demonstrated their supposed readiness for war with the US by swarming upon a mock-up of an American aircraft carrier.