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Iran executes young wrestler Navid Afkari

Over the weekend, Iran has demonstrated yet again its complete disregard for law, justice and international standards of due process.

On Saturday 12 September, Navid Afkari, a 27-year-old champion wrestler, was executed by hanging over the alleged murder of a security guard during a wave of anti-government protests in 2018 despite global outcry and without any semblance of due process and a fair trial.

Valerie Peay, Director of the International Observatory of Human Rights, said:

“The Iranian regime has shown its desperation to suppress any form of dissent. From torture, to the unjust and brutal execution of Navid Afkari this weekend, the world must hold the Iranian leadership to account for this despicable act of cowardice. When the life of an athlete is extinguished for standing up with his countrymen against injustice, what hope is there for humanity in Iran.”

In a statement, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said:

“The European Union is opposed to the death penalty under all circumstances and cases with no exception. Human rights remain a central feature of our engagement with Iran. We will continue to engage with Iranian authorities on this issue including through the local EU representation in Teheran, and also on individual cases such as this recent execution.”

The United States, which unlike the EU practices the death penalty, has also condemned Afkari’s execution. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called it

“an outrageous assault on human dignity, even by the despicable standards of this regime.”

Who was Navid Afkari?

Navid Afkari, a wrestler who won several freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling medals in Iranian and international tournaments, was arrested with his brother Vahid Afkari on 17 September 2018. Another brother, Habib Afkari, was arrested three months later.

They were charged with “waging war against the state, corruption on earth and forming an anti-revolutionary group” for participating in protests that took place at that time and for allegedly killing a security official on 2 August 2018.

Navid was sentenced to death while his two brothers were sentenced to 54 and 27 years in prison respectively. All three were also handed 74 lashes. There had been many calls to stop the execution, including from a union representing 85,000 athletes worldwide.

In a video recording posted online on 30 August, Navid’s mother appealed:

“In an unfair and mock trial, where my sons could not defend themselves, they were charged without any evidence, without having committed any crime. There were no documents against them. The court convened for only one session and issued its verdict. Now, their sentences have come.”

Amnesty International described Afkari’s execution as a “travesty of justice” and in a leaked recording released by the group, Afkari says:

“If I am executed, I want you to know that an innocent person, even though he tried and fought with all his strength to be heard, was executed.”

The US-based Center for Human Rights in Iran condemned the unlawful and tragic execution of Afkari and released the following statement by its executive director Hadi Ghaemi:

“The decision by Iran’s judiciary to execute wrestling champion Navid Afkari shows yet again that Iran’s judiciary is a tool of political repression and violence—and it is a threat to the Iranian people.”

He continued:

“Afkari was denied any semblance of due process and a fair trial. There is evidence that he did not commit the crime he was accused of and his statement that he was tortured into giving a false confession was never investigated.”

The wrestler’s death sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court despite formal complaints filed against interrogators for committing torture. Navid filed a complaint with the judiciary on 13 September 2019, detailing how he was forced to give false confessions while being subjected to “the most severe physical and psychological torture” during nearly 50 days in police detention.

In an audio file shared with the Centre for Human Rights in Iran on 30 August 2020, Navid is heard saying that the Medical Examiner’s Office in Shiraz carried out an examination of his injuries that were caused under torture.

“The evidence is there if the court wants to investigate [the acts of torture] … There is not one shred of evidence in this damned case that shows I’m guilty. But they don’t want to listen to us. I realized they are looking for a neck for their rope,” Navid said in the audio recording.

Forced confessions

On 6 September, Iranian state television broadcast a video of Navid Afkari saying he stabbed a man, and showed confessions purportedly written by the 27-year-old wrestler. Iran’s state media often air purported confessions by suspects in politically charged cases.

In a report released in June this year, the International Federation for Human Rights and London-based Justice for Iran said that Iranian state media have aired more than 355 forced confessions in the past decade. Iranian officials reject such accusations. 

According to the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty’s annual report, at least 280 people were executed in Iran in 2019, with figures likely to be higher.

 At least 30 people (approximately 11%) were executed for drug-related charges and this despite the fact that Iran is a member of the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ) until 31 December 2021. 

The Commission acts as the principal policy-making body of the United Nations in the field of crime prevention and criminal justice. Among its priorities are crime prevention in urban areas, including juvenile crime and violence, as well as improving the efficiency and fairness of criminal justice administration systems. 

International condemnation

The airing of Navid’s purported confession came just days after Trump commented on the wrestler’s tragedy. In a tweet on 3 September 2020, Trump called for Iran to reverse the death sentence.

On 6 September, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, UK Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth, also took to Twitter to urge the Iranian regime not to execute the champion wrestler.

Human rights activists at home and abroad have denied that Navid committed the crime and say that his confession was obtained under torture. 

“The Iranian authorities are increasingly using death sentences to terrorize the population into remaining silent and end any further participation in peaceful protests,” 

said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).

Navid has also received support from international wrestling associations and world champion wrestlers. The Paris Wrestling Club urged in a tweet to Iran’s regime not to apply the death penalty to Navid and the two-time world champion US wrestler Kyle Dake posted a video requesting Iran’s government not to execute him.


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