Iran Executes Popular Wrestler

At sunrise on September 12, 2020, Iran secretly executed Navid Afkari, a 27-year-old champion wrestler, by hanging in Shiraz. Afkari had faced multiple charges, including “enmity against God,” insulting the supreme leader, and murder of a security officer during Iran’s 2017-2018 protests over economic hardships and political repression. The latest execution reflected the regime’s crackdown on opposition and signaled how far it is willing to go to prevent unrest, which has increased sporadically since the mass protests against voter fraud during the 2009 presidential election.


Afkari had long protested his innocence. In court and in a handwritten letter in 2019, he detailed repeated rounds of torture in two prisons that led to his forced confession. He described 50 days of beatings, attempts at suffocation, and having alcohol poured into his nose. In a final voice recording from prison, Afkari reportedly said, “I’ve exhausted all resorts to the justice system of the Islamic Republic. They’ve rejected my requests for a retrial. The Islamic Republic of Iran is about to execute an innocent person like me. They’ve shut down my voice and they’re now about to take my life.”

Afkari plaintively appealed to the world to take action. “I’m asking every freedom-loving person from any ideology be my voice and that of my family because human’s honor without the right to justice has no meaning,” he reportedly said in the recording. “I’ve all kinds of documents to prove my innocence. With these documents, if ever I’m executed, people should know that in the 21st century, with all this talk of human rights by the United Nations in the world, they still executed innocent people in Iran.”


On April 25, 2020, the Iranian courts dismissed these claims, quoting a “statement” from Afkari, in the presence of a medical professional, in which he denied that he had been tortured. Under Iranian law, a victim’s family can choose to accept financial restitution for a crime; Afkari’s lawyer and family petitioned the family of the security officer killed in 2018, but to no avail. Afkari was denied a final meeting with his family, which was not notified of his impending execution. The regime reportedly blocked anyone outside his family from attending a rushed nighttime burial


The execution was condemned worldwide. “It is deeply disturbing that the authorities appear to have used the death penalty against an athlete as a warning to its population in a climate of increasing social unrest,” five U.N. human rights experts said in a statement. “Such flagrant disregard for the right to life through summary executions is not only a matter of domestic concern. We call on the international community to react strongly to these actions by the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

In the United States, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Afkari’s death “a vicious and cruel act” and “an outrageous assault on human dignity, even by the despicable standards of this regime.” He vowed that the voices of the Iranian people “will not be silenced.” On September 24, the United States sanctioned Judge Seyyed Mahmoud Sadati and Adelabad Prison for their involvement in Afkari's trial. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden demanded that Iran free all political prisoners, including detained Americans. “No country should arrest, torture, or execute peaceful protestors or activists,” he said.


In two tweets on September 3, President Trump had appealed to Iran’s leaders. “I would greatly appreciate if you would spare this young man’s life.” The World Players Association (WPA) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) had threatened to ban Iran from international sports if it executed Afkari, a popular Greco-Roman wrestler. United World Wrestling appealed for mercy. The regime responded to President Trump’s tweet with a dramatized 11-minute video that included surveillance footage of Afkari on the night of the crime, shots of the victim’s weeping family, and Afkari’s confession.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was due to travel to Europe on September 14, but the trip was cancelled after Germany, the first stop on the trip, and other European countries condemned Afkari’s execution. 

Human rights groups had launched campaigns to mobilize international pressure against Afkari’s execution. “This young man desperately sought help in court to receive a fair trial and prove his innocence. Leaked voice recordings of him in court expose how his pleas for judges to investigate his torture complaints and bring another detainee who had witnessed his torture to testify were unlawfully and cruelly ignored,” said Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

The Center for Human Rights in Iran warned that the regime’s action demonstrated yet again that the judiciary was “a tool of political repression and violence.” It charged that the regime, which has long had one of the world’s highest rates of executions, deliberately ignored evidence that Afkari did not murder the security agent. “His lawful participation in the protests that swept Iran in 2018 effectively signed his death warrant,” CHRI executive director Hadi Ghaemi said in a statement. “The authorities are determined to stamp out any peaceful dissent and protest and are increasingly issuing death sentences to enforce this repression.”


“If the international community remains silent in face of the injustice we saw against Afkari, we will see more state violence against peaceful protestors and more lives will be unjustly and unlawfully lost,” Ghaemi said. In 2019, Iran executed at least 251 people, according to Amnesty International

But a BBC Persian report suggested that Afkari may have been killed, not executed. In his last contact with his family, Afkari said that he had 10 to 15 injuries on his body. He said that the head of prison guards had beaten him. An eyewitness said that Afkari’s family was only allowed to see his face when his body was handed over and that Afkari’s nose appeared to be broken. 

Also, some protocols around executions were not followed. For example, Iranian law requires that prisoners and their families be notified of an execution at least 48 hours in advance. But Afkari’s family was not given that much notice. Also, authorities said the execution was carried out “on the insistence of the victim’s family,” but the family of the individual Afkari was accused of killing was not present at the execution, which is customary in Iran. 

Afkari’s two brothers were also sentenced for participating in the protests, challenging the regime and other crimes: Vahid was sentenced to 25 years for assisting the murder and other sentences totaling 54 years. Habib was sentenced on four counts — for “disrupting public order, disobeying law enforcement, intentional assault with a sharp tool and assembly and collusion to commit crimes”— that each led to a series of sentences totaling 27 years.


Statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

September 24, 2020

Major New Human Rights-Related Listings and Accompanying Sanctions on Iran 

The Iranian regime must respect the human rights of the Iranian people. Despite its obligations and commitments, the regime continues to subvert its justice system to fuel fear and repression. The United States is committed to holding accountable those who are denying freedom and justice to the people of Iran, and today we are taking major new actions which support the Iranian people.

Today, the United States sanctioned several Iranian officials and entities for gross violations of human rights. Pursuant to Section 106 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017 (CAATSA), I determined that Judge Seyyed Mahmoud Sadati, Judge Mohammad Soltani, Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Shiraz, and Adelabad, Orumiyeh, and Vakilabad Prisons were responsible for certain gross violations of human rights. This includes prior incidence of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, arbitrary detentions, and denials of the right to liberty of those seeking only to practice their faith, peacefully assemble, or to express themselves. 

These listings and sanctions come as Judge Sadati and Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court were reported to be involved in the appalling case of Navid Afkari, a young athlete who was imprisoned and brutally executed on September 12, 2020, by Iranian authorities. Navid was 27-years old with a promising wrestling career ahead of him. He was arrested in 2018 after participating in protests. Accused of murder, he was later subjected to trials that were rushed and grossly unfair, one of which was reportedly overseen by Judge Sadati of Branch 1 of the Shiraz Revolutionary Court. Prior to his execution, which was done in secret, Navid reported being tortured by Iranian officials at Adelabad Prison. His confession, which he later stated was provided under duress, was aired on Iran’s state television.

The United States joins with nations around the world in mourning Navid’s execution and condemning the Iranian regime. His killing was an unconscionable act. The United States calls upon all nations to promote accountability for this regime by imposing sanctions like the ones announced today. Navid had previously competed in Iran’s National Wrestling Championship and he had so much more to accomplish in life. Too often, the Iranian regime targets, arrests, and kills the brightest and most promising Iranians, thereby depriving Iran of its greatest asset – the skill and talent of its own people. Navid’s death must not be in vain: peace-loving nations should condemn his execution and Iran’s egregious human rights violations, and reaffirm respect for the freedom, dignity, and equality of every person.

The United States also sanctioned Judge Mohammad Soltani of Iran’s Revolutionary Court system as well as Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad, Iran and Orumiyeh Prison in Orumiyeh City, Iran. Judge Soltani is responsible for sentencing Baha’is in Iran on dubious charges related to their exercise of freedom of expression or belief. Vakilabad Prison, which is where the wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Michael White was held, has also arbitrarily detained trade union activist and teacher Mohammad Hossein Sepehri for simply exercising his human rights. Orumiyeh Prison has subjected members of ethnic and religious minority groups and political prisoners to abuse, including beatings and floggings.

The actions taken today by the United States expose Iran’s Revolutionary courts and their judges for what they really are: tools designed to enforce the Iranian regime’s brutal ideology and suppress dissent. They do not fairly administer justice, but rather seek to deprive the Iranian people of due process as well as their human rights and fundamental freedoms. This same system of injustice wrongfully detains three Americans: Baquer and Siamak Namazi, and Morad Tahbaz. We will continue to make every effort to bring them home. The United States will continue to stand with the Iranian people and demand the regime treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve.


Some of the information in this article was originally published on September 15, 2020.