DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran arrested a prominent former member of the national soccer team Thursday for his criticism of the government as authorities grapple with nationwide protests that have cast a shadow over World Cup competition.
The semi-official Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported that Voria Ghafouri was arrested for “insulting the national football team and propagandizing against the government”.
Ghafouri, who was not selected for the World Cup, has been an outspoken critic of the Iranian authorities throughout his career. He protested a long-standing ban on female spectators at men’s football matches as well as Iran’s confrontational foreign policy, which has led to crippling Western sanctions.
He recently expressed sympathy for 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 also called for an end to a violent crackdown on protests in Iran’s western Kurdistan region.
Reports of his arrest came ahead of Friday’s World Cup match between Iran and Wales. At Iran’s opening game, a 6–2 loss to England, members of the Iranian national team refused to sing along to 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 arrested by 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 were 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 his not being selected for the national team. He plays for the Khuzestan Foolad team in the southwestern city of Ahvaz. The club’s chairman, Hamidreza Garshasbi, resigned later on Thursday, the semi-official ILNA news agency reported, without elaborating.
The protests show no sign of abating, marking 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 have used live ammunition and birdshot on the protesters, as well as beaten and arrested 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 on Thursday to condemn the action and to establish an independent fact-finding mission to investigate alleged abuses, particularly those committed against women and children.
Authorities have blamed hostile foreign powers for the unrest, 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 a higher toll.
The protesters say they are fed up with decades of social and political oppression, including a strict dress code imposed on 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 root against their own World Cup team, associating it with rulers they see as violent and corrupt. Others insist that the national team, which includes 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 been vocal about the protests online, was on the bench for the opening game. In addition to Ghafouri, two other former soccer stars have been arrested for expressing support for the protests.
Other Iranian athletes have also been drawn into the fray.
Iranian mountaineer Elnaz Rekabi competed without wearing the mandatory headscarf at an international competition in South Korea in October, a move seen as expressing support for the protests. She received a hero’s welcome from protesters on her return to Iran, although she told state media the move was “unintentional” in an interview that may have been given under duress.
Earlier this month, Iran’s football federation threatened to punish players on its beach soccer team after it defeated Brazil at an international competition in Dubai. One of the players had celebrated after scoring a goal by mimicking a female protester cutting off her hair.