An Iranian climber left South Korea on Tuesday after competing in a test in which she climbed without the mandatory headscarf in her country to cover her hair, according to authorities. Farsi-language media outside Iran warned that Iranian authorities may have forced her to leave early and that she could be arrested in her country, something Tehran was quick to deny.
Elnaz Rekabi, a multiple medalist in various competitions, climbed without a hijab amid protests sparked by the September 16 death of a 22-year-old woman. The Iranian morality police had arrested Mahsa Amini because of her clothing.
The demonstrations, which have mobilized children, oil workers and others in more than 100 cities, pose the biggest challenge to the Iranian theocracy since the mass marches following the disputed 2009 presidential election.
Later, a post on the Instagram account attributed to Rekabi indicated that not wearing the hijab had been “unintentional”, although it was initially unclear whether she had written the text or what state she was in at the time. . The Iranian government routinely pressures activists inside and outside the country, often displaying what rights groups describe as coerced confessions on state television.
Rekabi left Seoul on a Tuesday morning flight, according to the Iranian embassy in South Korea. The BBC’s Farsi Service, which has extensive contacts in Iran despite being banned from operating in the country, quoted an unnamed “informed source” as saying that Iranian authorities had seized Rekabi’s cell phone and passport.
BBC Persian also said that the athlete had originally planned to return on Wednesday, but that her flight had unexpectedly been brought forward.
IranWire, another website specializing in the country and founded by Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, who was detained in Iran, stated that Rekabi would be immediately transferred to the notorious Evin prison in Tehran when she arrived in the country. This weekend there was a huge fire in that prison in which at least eight prisoners died.
The Iranian embassy in Seoul denied in a tweet “all fake news and misinformation” about Rekabi’s march on Tuesday. But instead of showing a photo of her at the competition in Seoul, she shared a photo of her wearing a hijab at another Moscow tournament, where she won a bronze medal.
The Iranian embassy in Seoul did not respond to calls on Tuesday.
Rekabi did not wear a hijab during Sunday’s final of the Sport Climbing Federation Asian Championships, according to the Seoul-based Alpine Federation of Korea, which organized the event.
Federation members said Rekabi had worn the scarf in her first appearances at the week-long event. On Sunday he only wore a black belt to compete, with black hair in a ponytail. He was wearing a white T-shirt with the Iranian flag.
The post that later appeared on Instagram, written in the first person, included an apology on Rekabi’s behalf. The text said that she had been unexpectedly called to compete, although in videos of the event in Seoul she appeared relaxed as she approached the wall and after competing. She added that she was returning to Iran on Tuesday as she had planned.
Rekabi was part of an 11-member Iranian delegation, which included eight athletes and three coaches, according to the federation.
Federation members initially said they were unaware Rekabi had competed without a hijab, but investigated after receiving questions about it. The event does not have rules that require bandanas for athletes, they said. However, Iranian women competing abroad under the Iranian flag always wear a hijab.
“We understand that he is on his way back to Iran and we will continue to monitor the situation as it evolves upon his arrival,” the International Climbing Federation, which oversees the event, said in a statement. “It is important to stress that athlete safety is paramount to us and we support any effort to keep a valued member of our community safe in this situation.”
The federation said it had been in contact with Rekabi and Iranian officials, without giving further details.
The South Korean Ministry of Justice refused to confirm whether the athlete was still in the country, due to privacy regulations. The South Korean Foreign Ministry said it had no comment on the matter.
Rekabi, 33, has been on the podium three times at the Asian Championships, with one silver and two bronzes.
For now, human rights groups estimate that more than 200 people have died in the protests and in the subsequent violent crackdown. Iran has not released figures for weeks. Demonstrations have been seen in more than 100 cities, according to the group Human Rights Activists in Iran. Thousands of people are believed to have been arrested.
However, gathering information on the marches remains difficult. The Iranian government has restricted internet connections in recent weeks and at least 40 reporters have been detained, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Iranian officials such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have blamed the demonstrations on the work of external enemies of the country, and not Iranians outraged by Amini’s death and other problems in the country.
Iranians have seen their savings evaporate as the country’s currency, the rial, collapsed following the collapse of Tehran’s nuclear deal with international powers.
The office of the United Nations high commissioner for human rights called on Tuesday for the immediate release of all those “arbitrarily detained” in the protests. He also criticized the “incessant violent response of the security forces”, which according to the media has left minors dead and detained.
“The continued unnecessary and disproportionate use of force against protesters must stop,” the statement said. “Detaining people just for exercising their right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression is an arbitrary deprivation of liberty.”
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers John Marshall in Phoenix and Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul contributed to this report.