Iran on Thursday arrested a former international soccer player of Kurdish origin who has strongly supported protests that have rocked the country since September, news outlets said.
Voria Ghafouri, an outspoken figure who made 28 appearances for Iran as of 2019, was arrested after a club training session over allegations that he had spread “propaganda” against the Islamic Republic, Fars news agency reported.
He is one of the most prominent figures arrested in a wide-scale crackdown on protests amid an intense scrutiny into the national team’s conduct at the World Cup in Qatar.
The team did not sing the national anthem in Monday’s first game against England.
But there are also growing concerns about the scale of the authorities’ crackdown in the western Kurdish areas of Iran, where Ghafouri is from, with rights groups saying dozens have been killed in the last week alone.
Ghafouri was arrested after a training session with his club Foolad Khuzestan on charges of “tarnishing the reputation of the national team and spreading propaganda against the state,” new agency Fars said.
Kurdish-aligned rights group Hengaw, based in Norway, also said he had been arrested and published a picture of the player in traditional Kurdish attire.
Former Iran international Ali Karimi, another outspoken supporter of the protests, posted the same photo of Ghafouri on his Twitter account in support of the player.
“For the honorable Voria,” he wrote.
– ‘Stand behind his people’ –
Ghafouri, 35, was listed as a member of Iran’s squad for the 2018 World Cup but was not named in the final line-up at this year’s World Cup in Qatar.
Ghafouri, who comes from the Kurdish-populated city of Sanandaj in western Iran, posted a photo of himself in traditional Kurdish costume on Instagram.
Iran has seen more than two months of demonstrations sparked by the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, herself of Kurdish origin, after she was arrested for allegedly violating the country’s strict dress code for women.
The protests have developed into a broad movement against the ruling theocracy.
Ghafouri had strongly supported the protests on his social media accounts and also reportedly visited Kurdish-populated areas of Iran to express his solidarity with the families of the victims of the crackdown.
He received special praise for visiting the young daughter of a woman killed in the protests and giving her a pill.
“Voria stood behind his people and paid for it. We should also stand behind him and not leave him alone,” tweeted US-based dissident Masih Alinejad.
– “Not our enemies” –
Ghafouri was a former captain of Iranian giants Esteghlal before his contract ended and he joined Foolad Khuzestan.
Many fans have suggested the end of his Esteghlal career was revenge for speaking out over previous protests that erupted this summer. Others argued that in his mid-30s, Ghafouri was already too old for Iran’s top flight.
Ghafouri isn’t the first major sports name to be caught up in the raid.
International footballer Hossein Mahini was arrested in October for supporting the protests but was later released.
The national team drew plaudits abroad for refusing to sing the anthem at Monday’s game.
But many Iranians have criticized the team for meeting President Ebrahim Raisi just before he left for Qatar as protests raged.
“They are not playing off our enemies,” Iran’s Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz wrote on Instagram this week in response to the anger.
After the 6-2 defeat by England, Team Melli’s next game will be against Wales on Friday.