In the coming days, if not hours, champion wrestler Navid Afkari will be executed by the Iranian government for what are widely accepted to be trumped-up murder charges. His real crime was to participate in anti-government protests that swept Iran in 2018.
His imminent death, which has drawn protests from as diverse figures as Donald Trump and players’ unions around the world, will present the International Olympic Committee with a serious test of what little moral leadership it possesses. Execution must equal expulsion from the Olympic family. Nothing else is good enough.
Let us remember that the IOC is an organisation that ruled out any form of political protest, whether kneeling or raising a fist, on the podium at the Tokyo Olympics. “It is a fundamental principle that sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference,” the IOC stated in January. “Specifically, the focus for the field of play and related ceremonies must be on celebrating athletes’ performance, and showcasing sport and its values.”
You would have to invent a new category of double standards for the IOC to prevent athletes protesting against the state yet to stay quiet as a state murders one of its own athletes. Given that Iran executes many of its political prisoners by hanging them from a crane in a public, how would Afkari’s death fit into “showcasing sport and all its values”?
Afkari is accused by the Iranian authorities of stabbing a security guard during the 2018 anti-government protests. What began as protests about the country’s flailing economy quickly gained a political dimension calling for the overthrow of Iran’s theocracy, particularly in cities like Shiraz where Afkari and his two brothers were based.
In the ensuing crackdown more than 7,000 people, including children as young as 10, were arrested, according to Amnesty International. In 2018, Afkari and his brothers were seized by plain clothes officers who duly produced a “confession” from him. On social media, his family insist that this was extracted by torture. “They tortured my sons to confess against Navid,” Afkari’s mother said. “There was one sham trial. My children could not defend themselves.”
In the clearest sign that the Iranian state is determined to make an example of Afkari, a popular local wrestler, his brothers were given jail sentences while he received two death penalties. “He has been unjustly targeted by the Iranian authorities who want to make an example out of a popular, high-profile athlete and intimidate others who might dare exercise their human right to participate in a peaceful protest,” the World Players’ Association, a union which represents 85,000 athletes across the world, said in a statement.
Afkari’s cause received the unlikely backing of Trump after his friend, UFC president Dana White, heard about the case. In what must rank as his most diplomatic and polite tweet, Trump made a direct plea to an Iranian government which he has previously threatened with obliteration. Trump tweeted: "To the leaders of Iran, I would greatly appreciate if you would spare this young man's life, and not execute him. Thank you!”
Unfortunately his intervention may have further inflamed the situation. On Saturday, Iranian television broadcast Afkari’s “confession” as well as the state’s evidence which amounted to Afkari being in the same vicinity as the murder. “We are extremely concerned that Navid's execution is imminent, given the Iranian Judiciary's record in such cases and the way they have previously carried out political execution,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of US-based The Centre for Human Rights in Iran.
If Iran will not listen to Trump, who has imposed a series of biting sanctions as well as sanctioning the assassination of its military leader Qasem Soleimani, then it may yet listen to the IOC. The Olympics is one of the very few global platforms from which Iran has not been ostracised. That leverage is considerable.
There is a legitimate argument to say why should the IOC expel Iran while awarding the 2022 Winter Olympics to China, which is committing untold human rights abuses of its Uighur population? The IOC cannot be the moral arbiter of all the world’s problems, but a direct attack on one athlete should be considered as an attack on the whole sporting body. It cannot afford to wait until Afkari’s body is filmed hanging from a crane before offering a mealy-mouth press release of condemnation.
The IOC argues that sport and politics should not mix, but that goes both ways. The IOC has the opportunity to save an athlete’s life, it must act now.