Navid Afkari, the 27-year-old wrestling champion of Iran, was summarily executed on September 12, amid contrary reports that he was killed under extreme torture. His execution led to international condemnation over Iran’s abysmal human rights record.
Afkari was tortured in prison and sentenced to death because he took part in anti-government protests in the city of Shiraz in August 2018. Along with his two brothers, Vahid and Habib, Afkari was the latest target of the Iranian state which seeks to silence dissent.
Afkari was tried over the alleged murder during the 2018 anti-government protests of Hasan Torkman, a security agent and employee of a water and sewage company in Shiraz. Iran’s state television showed footage of Afkari re-enacting the murder in the presence of policemen. Afkari accepted the murder charge, but later said he confessed under duress.
His mother said all three of her sons testified against each other under torture. One of them attempted suicide three times over the guilt he felt for testifying against his own brothers. Vahid and Habib Afkari both were handed down severe punishments and were sentenced to 54 years and 27 years in prison.
In a heart-wrenching video recording, Afkari’s mother sought help from the international community to save her son. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called for a fair and transparent re-trial. President of the Ultimate Fighting Championship Dana White, a longtime ally of President Trump, asked Iran to spare Afkari’s life.
Other American athletes like Sally Roberts, J’den Cox and German world wrestling champion Frank Stabler joined voices with White, who even asked President Trump to support Afkari. In a tweet, President Trump called on Iran’s leadership to spare Afkari’s life.
President of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach directly appealed to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and asked for mercy for Afkari. His plea was ignored with Iranian authorities stating that Afkari had been charged with insulting the supreme leader, “waging war against God” (known as ‘moharebeh’) and murdering a security agent.
According to state media, the victim’s family refused to forgive Afkari or accept blood money to stop the execution. Afkari’s lawyer said he was hastily executed without having a chance to say goodbye to his family. His lawyer confirmed that contrary to official claims, there was no footage of the murder scene. There are alternative reports that confirm that the victim’s family was prepared to accept blood money to forgive Afkari.
In response, the European Union (EU) condemned the execution in the strongest terms and urged Iran to halt the execution of protestors and respect its obligations under international law. At least eight other people were sentenced to death for taking part in the protests in 2018. EU Human Rights Commissioner Barbel Kofler questioned the draconian punishments that were handed down to the Afkari brothers and demanded the suspension of the death sentence. In an urgent statement issued to the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council on September 2020, Germany on behalf of 47 European countries condemned the execution of Afkari.
Five independent UN human rights experts strongly condemned the summary execution, including the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, the special rapporteur on rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, and the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The UN Human Rights Council condemned the repeated violations of human rights in Iran in a joint statement issued with the European members of the council including Germany.
Consequently, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) expressed shock over the execution. Another international organization, Global Athlete, condemned the death sentence. The World Players Association representing professional athletes even called for the expulsion of Iran from international sports following the execution, and said that Afkari was sentenced to death twice after being tortured to extract a false confession.
In subsequent statements, former US Vice President and current presidential candidate Joe Biden and Germany’s Green Party both condemned Afkari’s cruel execution. The German ambassador in Iran, Hans-Udo Muzel, had his embassy protest the execution in a tweet. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the execution a vicious act, and the State Department officially condemned it. Iranian human rights activists abroad and Iranian opposition figures condemned the brutal execution, reflecting public outrage felt in Iran over the execution.
In a coordinated move, Britain, France and Germany summoned Iranian ambassadors to protest Iran’s mistreatment of its political prisoners. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s visits to Germany and Spain were abruptly cancelled following the EU condemnation of Afkari’s execution.
This put Zarif’s visit to Europe on hold at a critical time when Iran was seeking European support to uphold the nuclear deal and lift the arms embargo. Besides the United States, the EU arms embargo on Iran is still in place until October 2023, regardless of whether the United Nations arms embargo on Iran is lifted or not. Zarif’s embarrassment was compounded by emerging reports around the time of his planned trip to Europe that Afkari died under severe torture.
Afkari’s torture shocked the world more so because groups such as Human Rights Watch had previously documented the systematic use of torture to coerce confessions in Iran, and condemned Iran’s state media for broadcasting forced confessions. Afkari’s case is daunting for human rights groups since earlier sentences against him issued last year were lenient (i.e. a long prison sentence) suggesting that his execution was deeply politicized to teach Iranians a harsh lesson, i.e. to avoid taking part in anti-government protests. More importantly, Afkari’s execution exposes the brutality of a government that does not think twice about taking the life of its national champion, flagrantly politicizing sport to silence the people of Iran, and recklessly playing with the lives of its athletes to ensure state security.