United against the execution of Navid Afkari

Making sense of Iran’s murder of champion wrestler Navid Afkari and its boycott of Israeli athletes

Executed Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Executed Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
The Iranian regime’s execution of champion wrestler Navid Afkari on September 12, 2020 for his peaceful protest against government corruption thrust athletes – especially those from Iran and Israel – into the global spotlight.
Adding additional notoriety to Iran’s sports establishment and the regime’s misuse of athletes, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Judo Federation prematurely celebrated the “martyrdom” of the former judoka Hamed Asghari.
Asghari served as a bodyguard for the nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who developed Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and, according to western media reports, was believed to have been assassinated by Israel on November 27 outside of Tehran. During the targeted shooting of Fakhrizadeh, Asghari suffered four bullet injuries and remains in critical condition.
The Islamic Republic of Iran’s boycott of Israeli athletes is perhaps best known in the sport of judo – a martial art in which Israelis have achieved enormous international success. On November 21, 2020, Israel’s Peter Paltchik won the gold medal (under 100 kilogram weight class) at the 2020 European Judo Championships. Of the nine Olympic medals Israel has secured, five have been in the sport.
What remains less well-known, however, is the Islamic Republic’s widespread discrimination against Israeli athletes – and its extrajudicial killings of its own country’s star athletes who dare dissent against the rule of the mullahs. The shocking extrajudicial killing of Afkari helped bring to the fore the Islamic Republic’s ubiquitous policy against Israeli athletes.
Afkari had said he was brutally tortured to confess to a crime he did not commit. Iran’s opaque judiciary claimed he killed a security guard assigned to track protesters during the November 2018 demonstrations against the regime’s financial and political corruption.
“There is not one shred of evidence in this damned case that shows I’m guilty,” Afkari, 27, said shortly before his execution, adding that the regime’s hanging judges “are looking for a neck for their rope.”
Navid’s brothers Vahid and Habib also participated in the demonstrations against the regime. For their peaceful protests, Iran’s regime sentenced Vahid to 54 years and six months imprisonment, and Habib to of 27 years and three months in jail, as well as 74 lashes each. Both brothers have faced severe torture and isolation in prison.
The horrific end to Afkari’s life prompted famed Israeli judoka Sagi Muki to weigh in. “What is certain is that the execution last weekend of wrestler Navid Afkari, who demonstrated against the regime and for the right to freedom and equality in his country, was intended to convey a clear message to [Iranian judoka] Saeid [Mollaei] that this would be done to those who oppose the regime,” Muki noted. “The requests of world leaders did not help and Navid is no longer alive. Even now that I am writing these lines, I am unable to stop thinking about this painful situation that connects to my own life.” Muki won a gold medal in the under-81 kilogram class at last year’s World Judo Championships in Tokyo. The Tehran regime compelled Iranian competitor Saied Mollaei to intentionally lose in the semifinal, so he would avoid a potential match against an Israeli athlete in the final. Mollaei later spoke out, and he now lives in exile for fear of regime retaliation.
The ongoing Iranian regime boycott of Israeli athletes is part and parcel of the larger Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting the Jewish state.
In October 2019, the International Judo Federation imposed a ban on Iran’s clerical regime until it assures the organization it will not discriminate against Israeli athletes.
In late November, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that that US government would recognize the global BDS campaign as antisemitic. “The time is right,” Pompeo said. “We want to join all the other nations that recognize BDS for the cancer that it is.” The US became the first government to recognize BDS as antisemitic, whereas in Germany and Austria, the national parliaments have done so.
To better illustrate the Iranian regime’s anti-freedom and anti-Israel ideology, the United For Navid campaign, also written as United4Navid on social media, posted a video on its website from former Iranian Greco-Roman national coach Sardar Pashaei, who said: “I personally witnessed Iranian authorities forcing athletes to refuse to compete with Israeli athletes…. Athletes who take part in civil disobedience protests in the streets are arrested, tortured and even executed, especially the innocent young athlete, Navid Afkari.” Pashaei continued: “I ask, where else in the world is a young athlete arrested, tortured and hanged?”
He called on international sport bodies to suspend the Tehran regime from competitions, “as long as Iran does not respect human rights and treat its citizens in a fair way.”
The former decorated Greco-Roman wrestler tweeted: “The strategy of the former head of the [Iranian] Olympic Committee to solve the problem of Iranian athletes with Israelis: ‘The Ministry of Sports should tell the International Olympic Committee to expel Israel from the IOC membership.’ Of course, the solution to other problems has been the same, which is why we are in the global index of ‘the second most miserable country in the world.’” Pashaei, too, now lives in exile.
A statement from United For Navid said, “Women are banned from attending sporting events [in Iran]. Last year, Sahar Khodayari, a young woman who faced a court trial for attending a match dressed up as a man, doused herself with gasoline and set herself on fire. [She died a week later of her injuries.] Moreover, Iranian athletes are ordered to purposely lose in competitions to avoid facing their Israeli counterparts.” The goals of United For Navid are, plainly put, that Navid’s death not be in vain and to convince sports organizations to bar Iran’s regime from competition. United For Navid is spearheaded by the women’s rights campaigner Masih Alinejad and consists of leading Iranian activists and distinguished athletes.
According to the United For Navid statement, “Such a ban by the [International] Olympics Committee and other sporting bodies has a historical precedent. In 1964, the Olympics Committee banned South Africa from the Olympic Games due to apartheid.” And Afghanistan was suspended from the Olympics in 1999-2003, partly because of the Taliban’s ban on the participation of women athletes. Jacques Rogge, who was president of the IOC from 2001 to 2013, defended the ban on the grounds that the Taliban regime violated the principles of the Olympic Charter. The charter states, “The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind.” The extrajudicial killing of Afkari has helped to bring to the fore the spectacular level of violence that the Iranian regime employs to inject terror into a restless population that seeks change in the political and social order.
The unrest in Iran and the global campaign to save Afkari helps to explain why the dissolution of the regime might be around the historical corner. “Afkari may be gone, but historians will look at his execution as the day [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei ended the Iranian and Western hope for internal reform and instead signed the death warrant for the Islamic Republic,” Michael Rubin, an Iran expert with the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, wrote on the website of The National Interest.
There is no shortage of examples of the Iranian regime ruthlessly eliminating star athletes to purge dissent. Take the example of Houshang Montazeralzohour, a member of the Iranian national wrestling team. Montazeralzohour, like Afkari a Greco-Roman wrestler, was a member of Iran’s wrestling team at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. He was executed in 1982 for alleged opposition activity.
The regime also executed the wrestling champion Ahmad Shaterzadeh in 1982.
One can locate a similar purge of athletes in Nazi Germany. In 1944, the Nazi regime beheaded the German Olympic wrestler Werner Seelenbinder because of his communist opposition activities against Adolf Hitler.
The Islamic Republic’s execution spree is not limited to wrestlers – a sport that has the same popularity there as football and basketball in Israel. Mahbubeh Parcham Kashani, Iran’s national gymnastics champion, was incarcerated for her membership in the left-wing group Rah-e Kargar and was hanged in 1982. Habib Khabiri, captain of the national football team, was executed in 1984.
Afkari’s case, however, breathed some new life and energy into high levels of dissatisfaction with the system of Supreme Leader Khamenei.
To the acute frustration of Iranians at home and across the diaspora, the international sports community – including the International Olympic Committee and United World Wrestling – forfeited a unique chance to save Afkari’s life.
Forceful rhetoric backed by a credible sanctions threat could probably have pushed Iran’s regime to issue a stay on Afkari’s execution. Put simply, this would consist of nothing more intellectually complex than the IOC and UWW declaring: “If Iran’s judiciary executes Afkari, the IOC and the UWW will banish the Islamic Republic of Iran from all sports competition.” Thomas Bach, the German president of the IOC, again showed feebleness toward Iran’s regime in the case of Afkari. It is worth recalling that in January, the regime assured Bach that it would comply with the Olympic Charter and not discriminate against Israeli athletes.
Bach’s (and the UWW’s) private letters to the supreme leader and the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, urging the ayatollahs not to execute Afkari, were ignored.
Iran’s regime is incurably recalcitrant about its antisemitic policy toward Israeli athletes and its system of capital punishment against Iranian athletes who show any hint of dissent.
The writer is a fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a reporter for ‘The Jerusalem Post.’ Follow him on Twitter @BenWeinthal