Remembering wrestler Navid Afkari, 1 year after Iran murdered him - analysis
September 12, 2021, marks a year since the Islamic Republic of Iran’s hangmen rushed to execute champion Greco-Roman wrestler Navid Afkari, merely because he dared protest against the theocratic state’s political and economic corruption.
The Jerusalem Post recognized the story’s great importance and punched well above its weight in drawing global attention to Afkari’s grim plight in the lead-up to his early morning extrajudicial killing, before major international news outlets reported on the story. What grew into a global campaign to save Afkari’s life emerged in part from the Post’s reporting and news-gathering in late August and early September 2020.
Alas, in the days after Afkari’s execution, intelligence agents from the Islamic Republic said there had been no other choice but to execute him, the Post learned this week from highly credible Iranian sources.
Iran’s regime remains highly anxious about a domestic movement mobilizing around Afkari’s killing.
Afkari’s brother Saeed wrote on Friday that, “on the eve of my brother’s anniversary [of execution], security agencies have threatened and pressured my family. We have been experiencing [the] most brutal repression for three years. We are saddened but we are still standing.”
The intelligence officials argued that Afkari was becoming too much of a popular figure among Iranians. One human rights expert from a prominent NGO told the Post that if the mushrooming international campaign would have had just a few more weeks, his life could have been saved.
The Post published its first piece on Afkari on August 29, 2020, under the headline “Iran’s regime to execute wrestling champion for his peaceful protest.” His inner circle said Afkari was “subjected to a forced confession under torture,” the article noted.
The British-Iranian actress Nazanin Boniadi also played a key role in late August 2020 when she tweeted: “Champion wrestler Navid Afkari has been sentenced to death for participating in anti-government protests in Iran. Those close to him have said he was subjected to a forced confession under torture. Stop Executions In Iran.”
Boniadi’s tweet was cited in the first Post story. The Iranian-American journalist and women’s rights campaigner Masih Alinejad also tweeted about Afkari during the nascent phase of the campaign.
ISLAMIC REPUBLIC judicial officials, who were later sanctioned by the US government for their role in hanging Afkari, said at the time that the sportsman had killed a regime security official assigned to track protesters at the demonstration that he attended in 2018. The charge was demonstrably false.
“There is not one shred of evidence in this damned case that shows I’m guilty,” but the regime’s executioners “are looking for a neck for their rope,” Afkari said shortly before he ascended to the gallows.
On August 31, 2020, Ben Askren, an enormously popular American former Olympic wrestler and mixed martial artist, tweeted the Post story to his more than 349,000 followers at the time, many of whom come from the combat sports community. “This is what a real authoritarian regime look[s] like,” he wrote.
This is what a real authoritarian regime look like. https://t.co/HRgh1SsBUq— Funky (@Benaskren) August 30, 2020
On September 2, just 10 days before the regime put Afkari to death, Askren re-tweeted the story, adding, “All of you SJWs [‘social justice warriors’] let’s go!!!! This man is being executed for showing up at an actual peaceful protest. Let’s get this trending and make something happen.”
All of you SJWs let’s go!!!! This man is being executed for showing up at an actual peaceful protest. Let’s get this trending and make something happen. https://t.co/k5KIki3sbS— Funky (@Benaskren) September 2, 2020
Askren’s tweets electrified social media and the wrestling and mixed martial arts worlds. To employ an overused phrase, Askren’s tweets were the sparks that ignited the global brush fire that became the campaign demanding that Tehran stop Afkari’s execution.
Richard Grenell, the former acting director of US national intelligence, provided the second major shot in the arm of the burgeoning effort to save Afkari. Grenell told the Post on September 3 that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) should intervene with an investigation into Afkari’s case.
Grenell’s words carried weight and the IOC started “behind-the-scenes work” and communications with Iran’s then-president Hassan Rouhani and its National Olympic Committee.
The IOC, wittingly or unwittingly, fell into a trap. By entering the false door of non-transparent talks, when Afkari had received two death sentences, the committee’s move played into the regime’s hands.
Had the IOC and United World Wrestling (UWW) − the international governing body for amateur wrestling − declared straight away that if Iran’s clerical regime executed Afkari, the Islamic Republic would be suspended from the Tokyo 2021 Olympics and other international sporting events, it is highly likely that Afkari would be alive today. Instead, both the two global sports organizations attempted in vain to negotiate with Iran’s rulers ahead of the execution.
The IOC and UWW, to the acute disappointment of organizations that advocate for the human rights for athletes such as Global Athlete and United for Navid, still have not sanctioned Iran’s regime for its murder of an Olympic-caliber athlete.
The news gathering and research of the Post contributed to this reporter writing an article on the subject for the US news organization FoxNews.com on September 1, 2020.
Two days later, then-president Donald Trump called on Iran’s rulers not to execute Afkari, citing the Fox News report. “To the leaders of Iran, I would greatly appreciate if you would spare this young man’s life, and not execute him. Thank you!” Trump wrote in a tweet that included a link to the Fox News article.
In a second tweet the same day, Trump wrote, “Hearing that Iran is looking to execute a great and popular wrestling star, 27-year-old Navid Afkarai [sic], whose sole act was an anti-government demonstration on the streets. They were protesting the ‘country’s worsening economic situation and inflation,’” quoting from this reporter’s dispatch in the last sentence of his tweet.
Now with the president on the bandwagon, the campaign to save Afkari’s life went viral and he became a household name within the wrestling and mixed martial arts communities.
Dana White, the president of the massively popular Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), issued a video plea to Iran’s rulers not to execute Afkari. Decorated wrestlers from Germany to Canada to the US, athletes who have won Olympic and World medals, urged Tehran to stay the execution.
The German government told the Post that it opposed Afkari’s execution. Yet countries with rich and powerful wrestling traditions such as Turkey, Georgia and Russia, to name a few, opted not to exert their leverage. If authoritarian leaders like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin had chosen to join the UK, Germany and US in opposition to the slated execution, the chances of saving Afkari’s life would have increased dramatically. Regrettably, elite wrestlers from Russia and Turkey did not raise their voices like their Western counterparts.
WHEN I asked Sardar Pashaei, the former head of Iran’s Greco-Roman wrestling team and himself a world champion in the sport, about the regime’s murder of Afkari, he said that “The Iranian government wanted to intimidate its people and send a message of fear one year ago by executing Navid Afkari, a star athlete arrested for peacefully protesting against the government.”
Pashaei, who helps run the United for Navid campaign that continues to raise awareness about Tehran’s abuse of athletes, added that “what happened was the exact opposite of the government’s plans. Not only did the people not stay in their homes, but they continued their protests in various ways. Navid’s execution marked many important milestones. First, for the first time, Iranian athletes with international medals and titles came together and formed a campaign called United for Navid.”
The decorated Greco-Roman wrestler, who now lives in the US, said, “This was the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic that Iranian sports stars had formed a political organization against the government and begun activities against it. This was very worrying to the Iranian government, given the status of national athletes among Iranian citizens.”
Lawdan Bazargan, an Iranian-American human rights activist who was imprisoned in Tehran because of her dissident activity, told the Post: “Navid Afkari was arrested and executed under the leadership of Ebrahim Raisi [then head of the judiciary, now president] over the so-called judicial system. Raisi is implicated in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners in Iran and was a member of the ‘Death Committee.’”
Bazargan is campaigning to draw attention to the role of Oberlin College’s Prof. Mohammad Jafar Mahallati who, according to an Amnesty International report, covered up the 1988 mass murder while serving as the Iranian regime’s ambassador to the UN. Bazargan's brother Bijan was executed by Iran's regime in Gohardasht Prison that year during the massacre.
David Hertz, an Oberlin College official, assured the student newspaper The Oberlin Review that the college would investigate Mahallati. But Hertz has refused to answer Post queries about the inquiry’s findings.
Raisi and Mahallati carried out the mass murder of at least 5,000 innocent Iranians in 1988, according to human rights groups.
“The execution of Navid is the continuation of the oppression and suppression of the early 1980s," Bazargan said. "The Islamic regime has stayed in power for the past 43 years because of the brutality of people like Raisi and his willingness to commit all kinds of crimes. Arresting Navid Afkari, executing him and keeping his brothers in solitary confinement is a symbol of the regime's weakness and its fear of its own citizens, especially the youth.”
NAVID'S BROTHERS Vahid and Habib also participated in the demonstrations against the regime in 2018. For their peaceful protests, the Iranian government sentenced Vahid to 54 years and six months imprisonment and Habib to 27 years and three months behind bars, as well as 74 lashes each. Both brothers have endured torture and isolation in prison.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran is not so powerful. If it were, there would not have been a need for the cowardly torture and murder of Navid Afkari and people like him. These crimes are [committed] to create an atmosphere of terror. We must stand up against this medieval regime and not allow other innocent lives to fall victim to its [drive for] survival,” said Bazargan.
It is impossible to see into the future to know where the highest-profile Iranian human rights case of this young century will lead. The ancient sport of wrestling captivates Iranian like no other and Afkari’s murder is now front-and-center in the Iranian consciousness.
Afkari said in a recording that was smuggled out of his prison: “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.”
Afkari, you have been heard.
Pashaei said that “with the execution of Navid, the Iranian government not only failed to extinguish his fire, but also turned him into a fire that is igniting countless other flames. The movement continues after Navid’s death.”