On December 13, the hashtag #Iranian Footballer to Be Executed for Supporting Women# gathered over 200 million views on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
The topic started trending following the news that former Iranian professional football player Amir Nasr-Azadani, arrested during anti-government protests, could face the death penalty.
Iran has been engulfed by demonstrations over the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was arrested by morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly.
Reacting to the viral discussion on Weibo, in which many users expressed outrage over the news about Nasr-Azadani, the Iranian Embassy in Beijing said he had committed “murder.”
“On November 16 (August 25 in Iranian lunar calendar), he, along with three others, shot and killed a colonel and two policemen,” the embassy said.
That is misleading.
First, Nasr-Azadani has not been sentenced, and it is unclear when his trial will begin.
Nasr-Azadani reportedly was indicted on the charge of assisting in “moharebeh,” meaning “waging war against God,” a capital crime in Iran.
His sentence, however, is “pending further investigation by a Revolutionary Court,” Al Jazeera reported on December 13, citing Asadollah Jafari, the judiciary chief of Isfahan, where the footballer was arrested.
A preliminary sentence can be appealed at Iran’s Supreme Court, Al Jazeera noted.
Iran has been handing down death sentences for protesters.
Two were recently executed by public hanging for “moharebeh,” after speedy “sham trials” that were “apparently grossly unfair” and “devoid of transparency or independence,” according to the United Nations and international rights groups.
Twenty-six-year old Nasr-Azadani has played for football clubs in the Persian Gulf Pro League, Iran’s top-level football league and Iran’s Under-16 Men’s Youth National Team.
On November 18, he was arrested during protests Isfahan, a provincial capital and historic architectural center for Islam. Nasr-Azadani was accused of belonging to an “armed group” that allegedly killed three security officers two days earlier, according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).
Iran’s state-run broadcaster, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), identified the three slain security officers as Col. Esmaeil Cheraghi from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s powerful security force, and Mohammed Hossein Karimi and Mohsen Hamidi from the Basij, the IRGC volunteer arm that has cracked down on protesters.
According to IranWire, a news site run by Iranian diaspora journalists and citizen journalists inside Iran, on November 20, IRIB released a video of forced confessions of three people accused of Cheraghi's death. IRIB said the three defendants’ names were published on social media following the video’s release, and that Nasr-Azadani was one of them.
Nasr-Azadani has been charged with “rebellion, membership in illegal gangs, collusion to undermine security and therefore assisting in moharebeh,” Agence France-Press (AFP) reported on December 13, citing the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA).
The charge against Nasr-Azadani “could carry death penalty if proven that the accused had used a firearm, otherwise he could be sentenced to prison,” CNN reported, citing Iran’s penal code.
However, on December 11, IranWire reported information that contradicts the allegations against Nasr-Azadani:
“IranWire sources said that Nasr-Azadani had been present in some nationwide protests, but he was never present in the area where IRGC and Basij forces were killed. The source also said that his presence in the protests was short and limited to chanting slogans for a few hours.”
Following Nasr-Azadani’s arrest, Iran’s security forces threatened members of the footballer’s family, telling them that if they talked about his arrest in public, he would be “issued the most severe sentence possible,” IranWire reported, citing one member of Nasr-Azadani’s family.
“According to IranWire’s sources, the family was initially unaware of the reason for his arrest, as well as the judicial system's filing of a case to frame him for the involvement in the murder of three government forces. The family's efforts to be able to choose a lawyer for him were unsuccessful.”
The source also told IranWire that after the family was informed of the charges, a government-appointed lawyer for Nasr-Azadani informed them that the charges were “only to cause fear,” but that “if the family members reacted and spoke to foreign media, the death sentence would become final.”
The news outlet said that Nasr-Azadani's family “is still afraid of talking publicly or releasing news related to him.”
“They think that by waiting and remaining silent, they may avoid the death sentence,” a source told IranWire.
“The source said Nasr-Azadani had no role in the beating or killing of three government forces in Isfahan,” IranWire wrote.
All the sources cited by IranWire were anonymous; speaking to journalists about sensitive or critical matters concerning the Islamist regime puts Iranian citizens at risk of persecution.
If convicted, Nasr-Azadani would join 11 individuals who have been sentenced to death over the unrest and could be hanged “at any moment,” according to Amnesty International.
“They include Mohammad Mehdi Karami, 21, arrested after attending a Nov. 3 mourning ceremony for a young protester killed in September, and Sahand Nourmohammad Zadeh, who is accused of tearing down highway railings and setting fire to rubbish bins and tires,” Bloomberg News reported.
Amnesty International has identified 20 people “at risk of execution in connection with the protests.” Apart from the 11 known to have a death sentence, three have “undergone trials on capital charges and … are either at risk of being sentenced to death or may have already been sentenced to death, with no publicly available information on their status.”
Six individuals “may be awaiting or undergoing trial on charges carrying the death penalty,” Amnesty said, Nasr-Azadani among them.
FIFPRO, the international trade union for football players, said in a December 12 tweet that it was “shocked and sickened” by reports that Nasr-Azadani could face execution “after campaigning for women’s rights and basic freedom in his country.”
Several prominent footballers, current and former, also expressed solidarity. “Do not execute Amir,” former Iranian national team player Ali Karimi said in a tweet directed at what he called Iran’s “child-killing” government.
Oslo-based Iran Human Rights reported on December 7 that “at least 458 people including 63 children and 29 women have been killed” in 26 provinces in the first two months of the nation-wide protests. The organization noted that numerous incoming reports of deaths are still under investigation and its tally is “an absolute minimum,” with the actual death toll “certainly higher.”
In a 486-page report, Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), affiliated with the U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Activists in Iran, documented the first 82 days of protests in Iran from September 17 to December 7.
The report compiled “the identity of 481 deceased, including 68 children and teenagers, an estimated 18,242 arrested along with the identity of 3,670 arrested citizens, 605 students and 61 journalists or activists in the field of information…”
Two 23-year old Iranians, Mohsen Shekari and Majidreza Rahnavard, were executed by public hanging on December 1 and December 5, respectively.
“Shekari was accused of blocking traffic during protests and causing knife cuts to a member of Iran’s Islamic plainclothes militia. Rahnavard, who was executed just 12 days after the start of his trial, was accused of killing two members of the militia,” Bloomberg News reported.
“The trials of those who are facing capital charges related to protests have been a total travesty of justice,” Tara Sepehri Far, senior Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch, said on December 13.
“The defendants are reportedly tortured into confessing, deprived of access to lawyers of their choosing, and rushed through trial proceedings that bypass safeguards in Iran’s own penal code and criminal procedure law.”