Last Saturday, Iranian media reported that Navid Afkari, a wrestler who had won medals in Iranian and international matches, had been executed. His killing is a sick mockery of justice—a state-sanctioned murder intended to terrorize Iranian dissidents. While it doesn’t reveal anything we didn’t already know about the depravity of the Iranian regime, the circumstances of his death deserve particular attention from international observers—and cry out for them to take action.
Afkari had been accused of murdering a security agent during the summer of 2018 protests against the regime. He had confessed to the crime—but later retracted the confession, explaining that he had given it under torture. Iran’s own official forensic medicine organization, upon examination, found that Afkari had indeed been tortured. Furthermore, there was no evidence, beyond his confession under duress, that connected Afkari to the killing.
Shortly before his death, Afkari remarked that the persistence of the death sentence, despite all the evidence of his innocence, proved that “they were looking for a neck for their noose,” and they came down to his. His real crime was his outspoken opposition to the regime.
There is also evidence that Afkari was not executed by hanging—as is typical in Iranian executions—but rather was killed under torture. A few days before the sudden news of his death, his family had been informed only that Afkari was scheduled to be transferred from Shiraz to a prison in Tehran. The execution had not been scheduled; it happened with no prior notice. The authorities have claimed that the rush was due to his alleged victim’s family’s pressure, yet that family was not present at the ceremony, as is custom. Another violated custom was the absence of Afkari’s family at the execution ceremony to say farewell; they found out about his death only afterwards. They were permitted to see only his face—and they reported that his nose appeared to have been broken. Last, but not least, Afkari died during Muharram, a month of mourning in Shi’ite Islam; for religious reasons, it is very rare, if not completely unprecedented, to have executions during Muharram.
Over the past few weeks, Afkari had become an international cause célèbre. The State Department issued a statement to condemn his death sentence; so did Germany’s foreign ministry. President Trump tweeted to express his support. Athletic organizations also issued statements of support for Afkari.
Since his killing, condemnations have poured in. Germany’s embassy in Iran, UFC president Dana White, the European Union,, the association for German athletes, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and FIFA have issued critical statements.
The last two are uniquely important. For years, Iran has violated the IOC’s rules of sportsmanship. Iran’s politicians routinely interfere in issues related to sport federations, against IOC rules. The regime bans Iranian athletes from competing against Israeli athletes—again against IOC rules.
FIFA, the governing body of international soccer, has rules regarding the politicization of sports similar to those of the IOC. Yet the Iranian regime constantly violates FIFA’s rules and interferes with the soccer federation’s internal issues, including pushing through changes to the federation’s bylaws and manipulating the selection of its president. Concerted pressure from FIFA finally forced Iran to allow a very small number of women into the stadium to see matches involving the national team last year, but in general Iranian women are still not allowed into soccer stadiums. And Iranian state TV airs international games without paying for the rights.
More generally, the Iranian regime uses sports, especially soccer, for embezzlement—as a way of enriching the regime’s affiliates.
For four decades, the IOC and FIFA have allowed Iran to get away with murder, metaphorically. Now, they face a decision: Can they just let Iran get away with the literal murder of one of their own—an athlete? Can they just move on? As a matter of self-defense, mustn’t they act?
If the IOC and FIFA were to punish Iran—say, by banning Iranian sport teams from international competitions until serious improvements are made—the vast majority of Iranians won’t blame those international bodies. As usual, when things go wrong, the people know to blame the regime. (This includes the current sanctions imposed by the United States.)
There is a clear right and clear wrong here for the IOC and FIFA. An innocent man has been murdered, likely under torture. He was one of them. And the regime that killed him constantly violates the rules of IOC and FIFA and exploits sport for financial benefits of its supporters. They should stand up for Afkari and punish his murderer.