The secret execution of wrestler Navid Afkari spreads a message of terror to the Iranian public

Sari Noah
Researcher for ImpACT International

Iranian authorities have responded with an unprecedented amount of force and violence when faced with widespread protests over the past years. They repeatedly accuse protestors of false crimes, arrest and violently attack peaceful protestors and do not conduct fair and transparent trials and investigations into their deaths. On the 12th of September 2020, the regime once again showed its true colours when faced with peaceful protests. On this dark day, Iranians across the world mourned the hanging of wrestling champion Navid Afkari, aged 27, in Adelabad prison, Shiraz. The young man was buried under high-security surveillance in the village of Sangar. Afkari and his two brothers, Vahid and Habib had been sentenced by Iranian authorities for participating in protests against the state that took place in 2018. His brother Vahid received a 54-year prison sentence whilst Habib was sentenced to 27 alongside Afkari.

Nine people have been sentenced to the death row for the anti-government protests that took place in 2018, such as Mostafa Salehi who was executed one month before Navid under similar false charges. The three brothers, like dozens of other innocent Iranians, are victims of a regime that is so afraid of the prospect of civil unrest and uprising that it repeatedly sheds the blood of its people disregarding basic human rights principles. Unless the international community take serious action to boycott Iran in all forms, those 9 other protestors will serve the same fate as Mostafa Salahi and Navid Afkari.

 

Coerced confession

The wrestler had been accused of stabbing a water supply company employee, Hassan Turkman, leading to his death in the city of Shiraz amidst the political uprisings in 2018. Just one week before Afkari’s unexpected execution, the wrestler had allegedly been forced into a confession statement that had been televised. Afkari had been brutally tortured for days to testify guilty of the charges. He was additionally denied access to a lawyer when present in court. Only his face was visible in the burial and family accounts mentioned that his face had major signs of beatings with a broken nose.

The use of torture into forced confession is a common method used by the Iranian judicial courts to secure criminal charges against Iranians who have not committed any crimes, except from speaking up against the regime.

Despite worldwide appeals from NGOs, state governments, human rights activists and parliamentary councils, authorities proceeded to take the young man’s life ignoring international pleas. The world players association stated that the Iranian regime should be expelled from world sport if they were to execute Afkari, alongside the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and the American sports organisation that all expressed the same distress. The president of the United States, Donald Trump, personally asked for the young man’s life to be spared alongside other important figures across the globe.


Afkari’s request for a judicial review of the death sentence he received was rejected by the supreme court immediately. After asking for justification on why the young man received such a harsh sentence, the authorities merely stated that Afkari had stabbed and murdered the water supply employee due to “personal reasons” without providing further explanation for those supposed reasons. The use of torture into forced confession is a common method used by the Iranian judicial courts to secure criminal charges against Iranians who have not committed any crimes, except from speaking up against the regime.

There had been no free media outlets to cover this trial, and with no lawyer present, there is no evidence to prove that Afkari received a fair trial at all. The regime then took two of his brothers hostage and forced them to make false testimonies against their own brother.

 

Unjustified charges

Afkari and his brother were arrested in 2018 with many criminal charges to their name, some of them include, insulting the Iranian supreme leader, murder, taking part in illegal demonstrations and committing enmity against god. As a result, Afkari received two death sentences, the first from the Criminal Court and the other from the Revolutionary Court. The two brothers were further accused of disrupting public order and disobeying law enforcement.

These unbacked charges indicate that the authorities merely accused the two young men of ill-defined crimes to provide the reasoning behind their imprisonment. These vague charges are commonly seen in cases for Iranians who participate or attempt to protest against the state, making them a great threat to the outdated legitimacy of the regime.

His lawyer reiterated that there was no footage of Afkari killing the security guard, the Iranian news reports posted the ‘evidence’ of the incident through footage where the murder was re-enacted and was taken an hour before it actually took place. Afkari was made to act out a stabbing gesture during a reconstruction under police instruction.

Afkari had tried to seek help from the justice court to prove that he was innocent and receive a just trial. In leaked voice recordings of his court hearing, he begged for the judges to further investigate his case and torture allegations, yet his cries were blatantly ignored and disregarded. On April 2020 the supreme court dismissed Afkari’s torture claims, affirming that in a statement, Afkari explained that he had not been tortured and that he did not need to be examined by a doctor. This is a common method explained by the court when the detainee presume they will be able to avoid punishment if they deny any claims of torture or abuse. In leaked voice recordings, Afkari states “If I am executed, I want you to know that an innocent person, even though he tries and fought with all his strength to be heard, was executed”

If I am executed, I want you to know that an innocent person, even though he tries and fought with all his strength to be heard, was executed

Navid Afkari, a wrestler executed by the Iranian authorities 

 

With one of their sons executed and the other two in prison, the Afkari family, alongside thousands of convicted families are coerced into a future of silence and fear. This is a tactic the Iranian authorities tend to take to suffocate its population. The family of three claimed that they attempted to visit the prison the day before the execution, but were denied access upon arrival. Afkari’s mother stated that she did not know whether her son was alive and needed to see him. Moreover, going against Iranian judicial laws, the authorities had not informed his family and lawyer about the execution until it had already been done.

The intelligence service bound the Afkari parents to bury their son in secret, keeping the execution of their child a secret from the public. The attempt to hide the execution from the public was due to fear of the possible unrest that may occur as a result of the news being spread. Terrified of what would happen if the family spread the news, the family buried their son under heavy security surveillance in the city of Shiraz, in the village of Sangar. The family had even been stripped of the basic right to mourn the death of their son in freedom, even that was monitored by the intelligence service. The family had been bound to secrecy for two years before the execution, not allowing them to publicise the abuse their sons were receiving.

 

Tortured in silence

Prior to his unexpected execution, Afkari was exposed to years of horrifying violations including torture, enforced disappearance and other unjustifiable treatments. He described the torture that he was enduring from his stay at both prisons in Shiraz. The forms of torture included pouring alcohol into the nose, suffocating him with a plastic bag over his head to the point of no breath, beatings to his entire body with a baton. He had told his family members that he and his two brothers had been beaten consistently by the prison guards and denied access to essential medical care. The three brothers and their relatives were sworn into secrecy by refusing to allow them to make a formal complaint about the vicious abuses they were receiving.

In an attempt to give the case more accountability, the Iranian authorities proceeded to pressure the older brother, Vahid, to incriminate and testify against Navid. This then led Vahid to attempt to commit suicide twice, as the prospect of turning against his own brother, for a crime he did not commit, had been much worse than taking his own life.

With no end to the tragic events, his family were not given notice that his execution would take place the next morning, he believed he would live to see another day. In a phone call to his family at 11:23 pm on September the 11th (the night before the execution) Navid stated that he had about 10-15 areas in his body that were all injured, yet the authorities continued to deny any allegations of injuries.  He then continued to show great hope over the phone stating that “god willing everything will turn out okay” and that he was not worried at all believing everything would get sorted out. The cruelty of such a regime prevails as the young man had not even been allowed one last visit from his family the night before his execution, this is a grave injustice that is greatly shocking.

 

How should this issue be addressed?

 

In 2019, Iran executed 251 civilians making it the second in the world for execution rates after China. The international community must not stop campaigning against the injustice occurring in the Islamic Republic. The execution of Navid Afkari should serve as motivation for states, NGO’s and human rights organisations to continue pressuring the Iranian regime to end the death sentence, assuring the Afkari brothers alongside dozens of political prisoners do not succumb to the same fate as the Navid and receive fair trials. The hurried execution had been an attempt to show young Iranians the consequences of getting involved in anti-government protests. The death sentence is cruel and vengeful, there is no place for such hateful crimes to continue in the 21st century. No higher authority should have the power to take another person’s basic right to life, there is never a justification for this.

The execution of Navid Afkari and the imprisonment of his two brothers represent the dozens of innocent citizens serving inaccurate prison charges in illegal detention centres such as Tehran’s Evin Prison. Nasrin Sotoudeh is amongst those political prisoners who remains imprisoned since 2011 with a sentence of 38 years, 6 months and 148 whiplashes.

The Iranian authorities should follow international law and human rights standards to transparently and fairly prosecute those persons who do take part in real crimes. In this turn, the Iranian judiciary should be pressured by the international community to acknowledge the thousands of torture and mistreatment allegations made by detainees such as Afkari to investigate the abuses the security and policing forces partake in. Reforms from within the judicial system should take place to destroy the injustice and politically flawed judiciary.

The international community, such as the EU commission, the UN, and the United States should hold the Iranian authorities accountable for the action that took place on the 12th of September. International sporting communities, such as UFC and the International Olympic Committee, should ban Iran from participating in any international sporting events, until they revoke their flawed death sentence and can guarantee the safety of their citizens and athletes. Furthermore, the international community and all countries around the world need to stand united and demand the regime release the remaining two Afkari brothers, Vahid and Habib.

With fear engrained into every aspect of Iranian life, the public is left struggling for an escape from the repressive regime and its vicious tactics against those whose only crime is peacefully protesting.