If things had been different, Navid Afkari could be fulfilling a lifelong dream of representing Iran in Olympic wrestling this week. And if Dana White or even Donald Trump had their way, Afkari would at least still be alive. Last September, he was hanged in Iran for a crime he insisted he didn’t commit, executed by the country he longed to represent.
Wrestling is Iran’s national sport, its history stretching back to the days of ancient Persia. They have won 43 Olympic medals, more than any other event in their history at the Games. And it’s clear to see how they are so good, with wrestling gyms populating on thre street corners of every city in the country.
Those gyms were where Afkari thrived. At 17, he made a national training camp for just eight wrestlers in the 69kg category. By 23, he had been earmarked as a future Olympian by coaches and to fund the pursuit of his dreams, he worked as a labourer by day. He won titles in Greco-Roman wrestling, where competitors only use their upper bodies to fight an opponent.
Achieving what Afkari did in a proud nation’s first sport means your name prestige. But that heroic status put a target on his back that cost him his life at the age of 27.
After taking part in widespread national protests against an increasingly paranoid and isolated Iranian regime in 2018 he, along with his two brothers, were arrested for the murder of a security guard.
His trial was branded ‘grossly unfair’ by Amnesty international.
Reports say the judge refused to show footage used to link Afkari with the crime or hear him present any form of defence, while Afkari claimed he was tortured into giving a false confession that was eventually broadcast on Iranian television days before his execution.
Navid Afkari could have been competing for Iran at the Olympics this week – instead, the Iranian regime made an example out of him and his status as a wrestler to quell unrest in the country
Afkari was a champion in Greco-Roman wrestling in Iran but after protesting against the country’s Islamic regime in 2018, was arrested and sentenced to death for the murder of a security guard – a charge labelled ‘a smokescreen’ by the United Nations
He was convicted and given two death sentences – the second for ‘waging war against the state’ due to his participation in the protests. His brothers were handed 54 and 27-year sentences. Afkari’s complaints of torture were never investigated and on September 12, 2020 he was hanged in the ancient city of Shiraz – known as the city of poets – where he had grown up.
It was a hurried execution, for reasons that are not entirely clear. His family were prevented from seeing him one last time, as Iranian law states should happen. While the circumstances around the morning of his death on September 12 are hazy, the reasons he had been put in that position are not.
‘Navid was targeted because of his success and popularity as an athlete, and this brutality was held up as an example to terrorize the public and silence dissent,’ Brendan Schwab, the executive director of the World Players’ Association, a global union representing 85,000 professional sports men and women worldwide, said in a statement to Sportsmail.
‘We are determined that Navid’s life will not be lost in vain. We will continue to fight for the rights of athletes and to ensure that the world of sport holds those who abuse human rights to the highest standards of accountability.’
In a leaked voice recording from prison before his death, Afkari railed against the iniquity of his fate.
‘During all the years that I wrestled, I never faced a cowardly opponent who played dirty,’ Afkari said, in a chilling recording. ‘It has been two years that my family and I have had to face off against injustice and the most cowardly and dishonourable opponent. Without a doubt, without your support and aid we will all lose. If I am executed, I want you to know that an innocent person, even though he tried and fought with all his strength to be heard, was executed.’
A protestor pictured outside the Iranian embassy in London on the day it emerged Afkari had been executed back in Iran
In a voice recording that leaked from his jail, Afkari said: ‘If I am executed, I want you to know that an innocent person, even though he tried and fought with all his strength to be heard, was executed.’
Afkari was protesting in 2018 against Iran’s ruling theocracy that has been in place since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
In Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has the final say on matters, but there are other competing factions of power. There is a somewhat loosely elected president and also the Islamic Revolutionary Guards – an arm of the military with increasing influence, founded the year the Islamic Republic took power. Their job is exactly what it says on the tin: guard the revolution and by whatever means necessary.
Iran’s population – a young population – have grown increasingly disenchanted by the stranglehold over their freedoms. The internet is heavily policed – they use VPNs and other inventive methods to keep contact with the outside world – and Twitter and Facebook are banned, despite Khamenei having his own Twitter account.
Women must wear headscarves – hijabs – in public. Homosexuality is illegal, and sexual activity outside of marriage is forbidden.
FBI FOILED PLOT TO KIDNAP FOUNDER OF THE ‘UNITED FOR NAVID’ FOUNDATION FROM USA
Masih Alinejad is the founder of the ‘United for Navid’ foundation. It recently emerged that the FBI foiled a plot from Iranian intelligence officials to kidnap her from New York, where she lives, and take her back to Iran via Venezuela, where she believes she would have been executed
Afkari had long reviled Iran’s rulers. He followed US-based Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad on Instagram – one of the social media platforms Iran has not banned. Alinejad is a fierce and relentless critic of the Iranian regime and its human rights record, documenting the struggles of the Iranian people to her 5.5million followers.
Unbeknown to her until after his death, Akfari once commented on her February 2018 post about a woman being arrested for protesting the compulsory hijab law. He wrote ‘I spit on your rotten soul’ about Supreme Leader Khamenei. It was liked 71,000 times.
Alinejad has since founded the ‘United for Navid’ foundation, aimed at preserving Afkari’s memory and calling for Iran to be suspended from the international sporting arena.
‘In death, Navid has reached heroic status,’ Alinejad told Sportsmail. ‘He has become larger in death than he ever was in life.
‘The government viewed Navid as a threat and silenced him, using his execution as a deterrent to others. But his only crime was to protest against an unjust system.
‘The government wanted to send a message of fear. He’s a hero for millions of young athletes. He’s everywhere now. I couldn’t save Navid but I wanted to save his two brothers who face long jail sentences. And I wanted his death not to be in vain.’
Alinejad’s own defiance in speaking out against Iran’s Islamic regime – not just on behalf of Afkari’s memory – has come at a remarkable impact on her own safety.
Days after speaking to Sportsmail, it emerged the FBI foiled a plot to kidnap Alinejad and take her to Venezuela by boat and then on to Iran, where, she told CNN, she believes she would have been executed.
Four Iranian intelligence officials have been charged, while Alinejad continues to receive police protection.
In 2018 the United States, under presidency of Donald Trump, imposed an array of sanctions on Iran after withdrawing from the nuclear deal. Iran furiously responded by ramping up its nuclear programme but as the economy crumpled and inflation spiralled, large swathes of frustrated Iranians took to the streets in protest, including Afkari.
It was a decision that would spark a series of events that cost him his life, despite the ensuing global outcry that caught the attention of significant names from across the sporting world who tried to intervene.
In the week before his execution, UFC president Dana White made an effort to raise awareness of Afkari’s plight by releasing a video directed at the Iranian government, pleading for Afkari to be spared.
‘This guy, first of all he’s a human being. Two, he’s one of us – could be any of my fighters,’ White said in the footage. ‘I too, respectfully and humbly, ask the government in Iran to please not execute this man and spare his life.’
White would later say of Afkari’s situation that ‘at no point did it look good’.
He even persuaded the then US president Trump to intervene. As well as behind the scenes work, Trump took to Twitter asking for Afkari to be saved.
‘Hearing that Iran is looking to execute a great and popular wrestling star, 27-year-old Navid Afkarai (sic), whose sole act was an anti-government demonstration on the streets,’ Trump said. ‘They were protesting the country’s worsening economic situation and inflation.
‘To the leaders of Iran, I would greatly appreciate if you would spare this young man’s life, and not execute him. Thank you!’ he wrote, linking to a Fox News article about Afkari.
Thomas Bach, the IOC president, also tried to encourage Iran to spare Afkari.
‘First of all, we have to stick to our principles, and this principle is to respect the sovereignty and judicial system of sovereign countries,’ Bach said. ‘On the other hand, Navid Afkari is an athlete. Therefore, we feel close to him. This is why the IOC, together with United World Wrestling (UWW), were and are extremely concerned about the case of Navid Afkari and we have taken contact with our respective partners.
‘You may understand that due to the particular circumstances – and the still ongoing efforts – I cannot offer more details at this stage.’
The IOC later resisted calls for Iran to be kicked out the Tokyo Games as numerous petitions surfaced, many gaining thousands of signatures. A ban from the international sporting arena is something the United for Navid campaign has repeatedly called for.
‘The week previously he’d (Bach) written to the supreme ruler, the President. The difficulty for us is this execution didn’t relate to a sporting event,’ IOC Vice-Preisdent John Coates said. ‘And the other difficulty is of course that there is probably 50 of the National Olympic Committees that come from territories that still have capital punishment.
‘We’ve been getting two sides to the story as to whether he got a fair go or didn’t get a fair go.’
The United Nations were clear enough on whether Afkari got ‘a fair go’, as Coates put it. Two days after his death, the United Nation’s Office of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said in a statement: ‘It is deeply disturbing that the (Iranian) authorities appear to have used the death penalty against an athlete as a warning to its population in a climate of increasing social unrest.
‘The execution of Navid Afkari was summary and arbitrary, imposed following a process that did not meet even the most basic substantive or procedural fair trial standards, behind a smokescreen of a murder charge.
In the months that have followed his death, Afkari’s grave has been repeatedly targeted by thugs who have destroyed headstones.
Since 1979, Iran has been ruled as a theocracy and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has the final say on any decision made in the country
UFC president Dana White called on Iran to drop the death sentence against Akfari and also alerted the then US president Donald Trump to the situation
Trump pleaded with Iranian authorities to reconsider the ‘great and popular wrestling star’s’ death sentence in a set of tweets last September (pictured)
According to the website Iran International last December, Afkari’s father was told his other two sons would be moved out of isolation and to a better prison if the family approved a headstone from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence. Essentially, one that prevents his grave becoming symbolic and a rallying point for those who want change in Iran.
There are many social media accounts calling out the Iranian regime under Afkari’s name, where he is described as a ‘national hero of the uprising’
But make no mistake, Afkari’s death has not scared protestors into silence. If anything, his memory seems to embolden them and he has become a symbol for change.
There are numerous Twitter accounts set up in his name by brave Iranians getting around the ban on the platform, with bios written in Farsi calling him the ‘National hero of the uprising’ and vowing to ‘continue the path of the hero’. On Instagram, Iranians share videos of protests inside the country such as burning pictures of the Supreme Leader in the street and use his name as a hashtag to help the footage go viral.
Even this week in Iran, protests against the regime are ongoing. They began in the city of Khuzestan amid water shortages as temperatures climbed to 50 degrees celsius, but have developed into dissent against the government and the Supreme Leader as they spread to different cities. Footage has emerged of security forces opening fire in a bid to quell the uprising.
Afkari would have been 28 on July 22, the day before the Olympics opening ceremony. Footage recently surfaced on social media of him dancing with family on the last birthday he spent as a free man, months before he was arrested.
Meanwhile in Tokyo, wrestling begins on August 1 with a freestyle category taking place alongside the Greco-Roman discipline in which Afkari made his name. Iran will enter 11 competitors overall into the events.
RICHARD RATCLIFFE: EXECUTING NAVID AFKARI SENT A MESSAGE TO ORDINARY IRANIANS
Richard Ratcliffe has campaigned tirelessly on behalf of his wife Nazanin, who was arrested in Iran in 2016 on bogus spying charges
Afkari’s story didn’t go unnoticed on British shores, either. Richard Ratcliffe has run a tireless campaign to free his wife Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual national who has been held captive in Iran for over five years.
She was arrested at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport in April 2016 by the Revolutionary Guard after travelling to Iran with their then baby daughter, Gabriella, to visit family for the Persian New Year.
Nazanin was sentenced to five years in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran on bogus spying charges. When that sentence ended in March, Iran handed her a further one-year prison sentence for attending a demonstration outside the Iranian embassy in Britain in 2009, followed by a one-year ban from leaving the country.
What could Iran want with a British mother who was visiting with her baby? Nazanin, Richard says, is being used as leverage over an unpaid £400m debt Britain owes Iran for tanks that were paid for but never delivered shortly before the Islamic Revolution.
He says Nazanin has been told by the Revolutionary Guard that when Britain repays Iran the money, she will be free to go home to her family in London.
They have found themselves plunged into the centre of the brutal world of hostage diplomacy. While Afkari was targeted for different reasons, Mr Ratcliffe told Sportsmail that both tales show how calculating the Iranian regime is.
‘The shock in Navid’s story is that he was a high profile sporting hero in Iran’s top Olympic sport, that it could be done even to him,’ Ratcliffe said. ‘But for the regime that was the point – his execution and the continuing imprisonment of his brothers is a family tragedy few of us can understand.
‘For ordinary Iranians it is also a warning to those who speak out – beware, we will go after your families too. It is meant also for people like Nazanin.
‘For the world outside, Navid’s story is a reminder of how far the Iranian regime is prepared to go to keep in its seat, and that people are not protected by secret deals and appeasement and fancy carriages for Iranian officials, but by the voices of those who can speak out and the spotlight of accountability. Else the torture goes on.
‘Nazanin and Navid are just the names you have heard about. The real tragedy is for the families that never get noticed.’
Ratcliffe and his daughter Gabriella hold a picture of Nazanin outside the Iranian embassy in London during a protest in March