Iran’s execution of wrestler Navid Afkari sparks outcry on social media

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Iran executed champion wrestler Navid Afkari on Saturday despite widespread pleas to spare him, prompting angry reactions from Iranians at home and abroad on social media platforms.

Afkari, 27, was arrested during anti-government protests in 2018. He was given two death sentences, six and a half years in prison and 74 lashes for the alleged murder of a water company security guard.

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His brothers, Vahid and Habib, have each been sentenced to 54 and 27 years in prison, respectively.

Last week, Iranian state television aired a video in which Afkari appeared to confess to killing the security guard, but the wrestler and his two brothers had released several audio recordings prior to that, saying they were tortured into making false confessions.

“They are looking for a neck for their rope,” Afkari said in one of the recordings, stressing his innocence.

Their mother had also said in a video recording that her sons had been tortured to testify against each other, and that one of them had attempted suicide due to the physical and psychological pressure in prison.

Iranians in and out of the country had been campaigning extensively on social media platforms against Afkari’s execution using the hashtag #SaveNavidAfkari.

Rights groups, foreign officials including US President Donald Trump, and a global union representing 85,000 athletes had also called on Tehran to not execute the wrestler.

Afkari’s execution has sparked an outcry on social media.

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“Our job must now be to hold the Islamic Republic authorities accountable for this travesty of justice. I am devastated for his mother who pleaded for our help,” Iranian-British actress and human rights activist Nazanin Boniadi wrote on Twitter.

“Afkari is not the first victim of the Islamic Republic, nor will he be the last. If we do not do something, we will all become hashtags soon,” one user tweeted in Persian.

Some Iranian activists have called on international sporting bodies to ban Iran.

“[The] Islamic Republic murdered #NavidAfkari, an innocent man, for the crime of protesting … Our demand is for the world to ban [the] Islamic Republic from international sports,” Iranian journalist and women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad tweeted.

“They murdered Navid. Kick this regime out of the @Olympics. Kick them out of @FIFAcom. Kick them out of all sporting competitions. Make them the international pariahs they deserve to be,” Iranian dissident Kaveh Shahrooz tweeted.

Afkari’s execution is further proof that the regime in Tehran is unreformable, said one Iran expert.

“Today, the regime chose to again display, for Iranians and the world, why it is not reformable. It is rightly being met with condemnations online,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), said.

Cases such as Afkari’s show how afraid of anti-government unrest Tehran is, according to Taleblu.

“Iran’s continued jailing, torture, and execution of individuals on manufactured charges related to past protests shows just how afraid of those movements the Islamic Republic actually is,” Taleblu told Al Arabiya English.

“While online pressure campaigns have helped in certain human rights cases, the execution of Afkari joins the growing list of instances where it was not enough,” he added.

Taleblu’s view that the regime is unreformable has been echoed by many angry Iranians online who say the only solution is to overthrow the clerical regime.

“The Islamic Republic executed Navid Afkari. The Islamic Republic is a criminal regime and it must go. There is no other way,” Iranian dissident Shahin Milani said on Twitter.

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