DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — 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 Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported that Woria Ghafouri was arrested for “insulting the national football team and propagating against the government”.
Ghafouri, who was not selected to go to the World Cup, has been an outspoken critic of the Iranian authorities throughout his career. He opposed a long-standing ban on women watching men’s soccer matches, as well as Iran’s confrontational foreign policy that has led to crippling Western sanctions.
Most recently, he expressed his condolences to the family of a 22-year-old woman whose death during the arrest of Iran’s moral police fueled recent protests. In recent days, he has also called for an end to a brutal suppression of 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 first match, a 6-2 loss to England, members of the Iranian national team refused to sing along with their national anthem and some fans expressed support for the protests.
The protests were sparked by the death on September 16 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, is the epicenter of the protests. Shops in the region were closed on Thursday following calls for a general strike.
Iranian officials have not said whether Ghafouri’s activism was a factor in him not being selected for the national team. He plays for the Khuzestan Fulad team in the southwestern city of Ahvaz.
The protests show no signs of 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 have used live ammunition and birdshot against 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 unrest began, according to Iran Human Rights Activists, a group that monitors the protests.
United Nations Human Rights Council voted on Thursday to condemn the crackdown and establish an independent fact-finding mission to investigate alleged abuses, particularly those committed against women and children.
Authorities blamed the unrest on hostile foreign forces, without providing evidence, and said separatists and other armed groups had attacked security forces. Human rights activists in Iran say at least 57 security personnel were killed, while state media reported a higher number.
Protesters say they are fed up after decades of social and political repression, including a strict dress code imposed on women. Young women have played a leading role in the protests, removing the mandatory Islamic headscarves to express their rejection of clerical rule.
Some Iranians actively support their own team at the World Cup, associating it with rulers they see as violent and corrupt. Others insist that the national team, which includes players who have expressed solidarity with the protests on social media, represents the people of the country.
The team’s star striker, Sardar Azmoun, who has been vocal about the protests online, was on the bench during the opening game. In addition to Ghafouri, two other former soccer stars were arrested for expressing support for the protests.
Other Iranian athletes were also drawn into the fray.
Iranian rock climber Elnaz Rekabi competed without wearing the mandatory headscarf at an international competition in South Korea in October, a move widely seen as a show of support for the protests. She received hero welcome by 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 from its beach soccer team after beating Brazil at an international competition in Dubai. One of the players had celebrated after scoring a goal by mimicking a protesting woman by cutting off her hair.
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