Iran arrests ex-international soccer player who supported protests

Iran on Thursday arrested a former international footballer of Kurdish descent who has strongly supported protests that have rocked the country since September, news agencies said.

Voria Ghafouri, an outspoken figure who made 28 appearances for Iran until 2019, was arrested after a club training session on charges of spreading “propaganda” against the Islamic Republic, the Fars news agency reported.

He is one of the most prominent figures arrested in a large-scale crackdown on protests, amid intense investigations into the conduct of the national team during the World Cup in Qatar.

The team refrained from singing the national anthem during their first game against England on Monday.

But concerns are also growing about the extent of the crackdown by authorities in the western Kurdish areas of Iran, where Ghafouri comes from. Human rights groups say dozens have been killed in the past week alone.

Ghafouri was detained after a training session with his club Foolad Khuzestan on charges of “tarnishing the national team’s reputation and spreading propaganda against the state,” Fars’ new agency said.

Kurdish-focused rights group Hengaw, based in Norway, also said he was arrested and posted a photo of the player in traditional Kurdish clothing.

Former Iranian international footballer Ali Karimi, another outspoken supporter of the protests, also posted the same photo of Ghafouri on his Twitter account in support of the player.

“For the dear Voria,” he wrote.

– ‘Standed with his people’ –

Ghafouri, 35, was part of Iran’s 2018 World Cup squad, but was not named in the final line-up for this year’s World Cup in Qatar.

Originally from the Kurdish-populated city of Sanandaj in western Iran, Ghafouri had posted a picture of himself on Instagram in traditional Kurdish clothing.

Iran has seen more than two months of demonstrations sparked by the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, herself of Kurdish descent, after she was arrested for allegedly violating the country’s strict dress code for women.

The protests have grown into a broad movement against the ruling theocracy.

Ghafouri had strongly supported the protests on his social media accounts and reportedly also visited the Kurdish-populated areas of Iran to express solidarity with the families of the victims of the crackdown.

He received particular praise for visiting the young daughter of a woman who had died during the protests and presenting her with a tablet.

“Voria stood by his people and paid for it. We must also stand by him and not leave him alone,” US-based dissident Masih Alinejad tweeted.

– ‘Not our enemies’ –

Ghafouri formerly captained Iran’s leading club Esteghlal before his contract was terminated and he moved to Foolad Khuzestan.

Many fans suggested that ending his career at Esteghlal was revenge for speaking out in support of previous protests that erupted this summer. Others argued that Ghafouri was already too old for the Iranian top flight in his mid-thirties.

Ghafouri is not the first big sports name to be involved in the crackdown.

International footballer Hossein Mahini was arrested in October for supporting the protests, but was later released.

The international squad drew praise abroad for refusing to sing the national anthem during Monday’s game.

But many Iranians have criticized the team for meeting President Ebrahim Raisi just before leaving for Qatar as protests rage.

“They don’t play off our enemies,” Iran’s Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz wrote on Instagram this week in response to the outrage.

After losing 6-2 to England, Team Melli’s next game is against Wales on Friday.

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