Iran has arrested a Kurdish ex-international soccer player who strongly supported the protests that have rocked the country since September, news agencies said.
According to the Fars news agency, outspoken man Voria Ghafouri, who appeared 28 times in Iran until 2019, was arrested after a club training session on charges of “propaganda” against the Islamic Republic.
He is one of the most prominent figures to have been arrested in a wide-ranging crackdown on protests amid serious investigations into the conduct of the national team at the World Cup in Qatar.
The team refrained from singing the national anthem in Monday’s first game against England.
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Iranian football players led by captain Alirza Jahanbakhsh stood motionless while playing the national anthem before the opening match of the tournament against England in Qatar’s capital, Doha. The team’s brave display won praise from around the world.
But in addition to human rights groups reporting that dozens of people have been killed in the past week alone, there is growing concern about the extent of the government’s crackdown in Iran’s western Kurdish regions where Ghafouri spoke.
Fars New Agency reported that Gafouri was detained after a training session with Foolad Khuzistan on charges of “defaming the reputation of the national team and making propaganda against the state”.
Hengaw, a Kurdish-based human rights organization based in Norway, also posted a picture of the player in traditional Kurdish clothing and said he was arrested.
Another open supporter of the protests, Ali Karimi, a former football player of the Iranian national team, posted the same photo of Ghafouri on his Twitter account in support of the player.
“For Reverend Voria,” he wrote.
Ghafouri, 35, was named as a member of Iran’s 2018 World Cup squad but was not included in the final squad to play at this year’s World Cup in Qatar.
Originally from Sanandaj, a Kurdish settlement in the west of Iran, Gafuri posted a picture of herself in traditional Kurdish clothing on Instagram.
Demonstrations in Iran sparked by the killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman, after she was arrested for allegedly violating the country’s strict dress code for women, have continued for more than two months.
The protests have turned into a broad movement against the ruling theocracy. Ghafouri strongly supported the protests on his social media accounts and also reportedly traveled to Kurdish-populated areas of Iran to express solidarity with the families of the victims of the crackdown.
He received special praise for visiting the young daughter of a woman killed in the protests and giving her a tablet.
“Voria stood behind the people and paid the price. We must stand behind him and not let him be alone,” Masih Alinejad, a dissident living in the United States, wrote on his Twitter account.
Ghafouri was the captain of Iran’s leading club before his contract was terminated and he moved to Foolad Khuzestan.
Many fans said his career ending with Esteghlal was revenge for supporting the protests that began this summer. Others argued that Ghafouri, in his mid-30s, was already too old for Iran’s top league.
Ghafouri is not the first big name in sports to come under pressure.
International footballer Hossein Mahini was arrested in October for supporting the protests, but was later released.
The international side won praise abroad for refusing to sing the national anthem during Monday’s match.
But many Iranians criticized the team for meeting with President Ibrahim Raisi before traveling to Qatar amid protests.
Iran’s Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz responded to the outrage this week by writing on Instagram: “They are not our enemies, they are the players.”
After losing 6-2 to England, Team Melli will play their next match against Wales on Friday.
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