Iranian player Voria Ghafouri arrested for criticizing the government

Iran has arrested a prominent former soccer player over his criticism of the government as authorities grapple with nationwide protests that have cast a shadow over their World Cup bid.

The semi-official Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported that Voria Ghafouri was arrested for “insulting the national football team and running propaganda against the government”.

Ghafouri, who was not selected to go to the World Cup, has been a fierce critic of the Iranian authorities throughout his career. He protested the long-standing ban on female spectators at men’s football matches as well as Iran’s confrontational foreign policy, which has led to crippling Western sanctions.

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He recently expressed his condolences to the family of a 22-year-old woman whose death while in the custody of Iran’s morality police sparked the latest protests. In recent days, he also called for an end to the violent crackdown on protests in Iran’s western Kurdistan region.

News of his arrest came ahead of Friday night’s World Cup match between Iran and Wales. In Iran’s opening game, a 6-2 loss to England, members of the Iranian national team refused to sing along to their national anthem and some fans expressed support for the protest.

The protests were sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman who was arrested by the moral police in the capital Tehran on September 16. They quickly grew into protests across the country demanding the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. The Kurdish region in the west of the country, where both Amini and Ghafouri are from, has been the epicenter of the protests. Shops were closed in the area on Thursday following a general strike.

Iranian officials have not said whether Ghafouri’s activism was a factor in not selecting him for the national team. He plays for the Khuzestan Foolad team in the southwestern city of Ahvaz. The club’s chairman, Hamidreza Garshasbi, resigned later Thursday, the semi-official ILNA news agency reported, without elaborating.

The protests show no sign of abating and mark one of the biggest challenges Iran’s ruling clerics have faced since the 1979 Islamic revolution that brought them to power. Human rights groups say security forces used live ammunition and birdshot on the protesters, as well as beating and arresting them, with much of the violence caught on video.

At least 442 protesters have been killed and more than 18,000 detained since the unrest began, according to Iran Human Rights Watch, a group monitoring the protests.

The United Nations Human Rights Council voted Thursday to condemn the crackdown and establish an independent commission of inquiry to investigate alleged abuses, particularly those against women and children.

Authorities have blamed the unrest on hostile foreign powers, without providing evidence, and some separatists and other armed groups have attacked security forces. Human rights activists in Iran say at least 57 security personnel have been killed, but state media have reported higher tolls.

The protesters say they have had enough after decades of social and political oppression, including strict dress codes imposed on women. Young women have played a leading role in the protests, removing the mandatory Islamic headscarves to express their rejection of clerical rule.

Some Iranians are actively campaigning against their own team at the World Cup, associating it with rulers they see as violent and corrupt. Others argue that the national team, which includes players who have spoken out on social media in solidarity with the protests, represents the people of the country.

Team star Sardar Azmoun, who has been vocal about the protests online, was on the bench for the opening game. In addition to Ghafouri, two other former soccer stars have been arrested for expressing support for the protests.

Other Iranian athletes have also been drawn into the fray.

Iranian rock climber Elnaz Rekabi competed without the mandatory headscarf at an international competition in South Korea in October, widely seen as a show of support for the protests. She received a hero’s welcome from protesters when she returned to Iran, even though she told state media the move was “unintentional” in an interview that may have been given under duress.

Earlier this month, Iran’s football federation threatened to punish players on its beach soccer team after it defeated Brazil at an international tournament in Dubai. One of the players had celebrated after scoring a goal by mimicking a female protester cutting off her hair.

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