VOA – Iran’s Saturday execution of a wrestler who said he was tortured into a murder confession happened without advance warning to relatives, lawyers and even the wrestler himself, according to a knowledgeable source.
The source who is close to the family of wrestler Navid Afkari Sangari told VOA Persian in a Sunday interview that Afkari’s family and lawyers were given no notice that the execution would happen early Saturday, nor were they given one last opportunity to meet with him in the preceding days.
Iranian law requires the government to notify lawyers of a scheduled execution of their client 48 hours in advance and to grant families the right to visit their condemned relative for the last time.
The source said Afkari’s lawyers had planned a Saturday meeting in the south-central city of Shiraz, where he was jailed, with relatives of the man whom Afkari was alleged to have killed. The purpose of the meeting would have been to try to convince the relatives to forgive Afkari, an act that would have canceled his death sentence under Iran’s law of qisas or retribution in kind.
But the source said the lawyers instead received a Saturday phone call from a family member of Afkari saying the wrestler had been executed earlier in the day.
“Were you in such a hurry to carry out the death sentence that you deprived Navid of his last (family) meeting?” his lawyer Hassan Younesi asked in a Saturday tweet apparently directed toward Iranian authorities.
Iranian state media had quoted Kazem Mousavi, chief justice of Fars province whose capital is Shiraz, as saying the execution was carried out Saturday morning local time at the city’s Adel Abad prison. The method of Afkari’s execution was not disclosed.
Afkari’s last brief contact with family members came in a phone call he was allowed to make from the prison on Friday, the source said.
In the phone call, a recording of which was posted to social media on Monday, Afkari told an unidentified family member that it appeared the prison was planning to transfer him and his two brothers who had been jailed as his alleged accomplices to Tehran on Saturday morning. He did not specify what led him to believe he was about to be transferred to another city, but he ended the call by saying he hoped everything would be alright.
Afkari’s calm tone of voice also gave no indication that he expected to be executed the next morning rather than transferred.
Iranian journalist and rights activist Mehdi Mahmoudian, one of the Iranian social media users who had posted the recording of Afkari’s Friday phone call to Twitter, later deleted it. He informed his followers in a Monday tweet that the Afkari family had asked for the audio to be taken down.
VOA’s source said Afkari’s father and other relatives attended a funeral for the wrestler late Saturday in the Fars provincial town of Sangar in the presence of security agents in plainclothes.
A video of the funeral shared on social media showed candles lit at Afkari’s grave site, with music playing in the background.
The 27-year-old Iranian Greco-Roman wrestler had been a local hero in his hometown of Shiraz for winning medals in domestic and international competitions. But his international profile rose earlier this month when news emerged that Iran upheld his death sentence, prompting an outpouring of support for him from social media users including U.S. President Donald Trump and the international wrestling and sporting communities.
A Fars criminal court had handed Afkari the death penalty for murder in the Aug. 2, 2018 killing of Hassan Torkaman, a security guard of a government water facility in Shiraz. The incident happened on the sidelines of peaceful anti-government protests that Afkari had joined in Shiraz and that were taking place in other cities in response to Iran’s worsening economic conditions.
Authorities in Shiraz arrested the wrestler and his brother Vahid in connection with the killing on Sept. 17, 2018 and detained a third brother Habib later that year. Since then, Vahid and Habib have been sentenced to decades in prison for their alleged roles in the incident.
But in separate audio messages sent from prison and posted to social media in late August, Navid and Vahid said they had been tortured into confessing involvement in the 2018 killing.
Navid made another phone call to his relatives on September 6, saying he and his brothers had been beaten in prison in recent days, according to an additional source who spoke earlier to VOA Persian and who is close to the family. In his final September 11 phone call, Navid said several doctors had examined and photographed their wounds from those apparent beatings.
“Now people are looking for justice for Navid,” said the source whom VOA interviewed on Sunday. “They will continue to do so even if the family is unable to follow up on the case.”
U.N. human rights experts condemned Afkari’s execution in a statement released Monday, saying it appeared Iran was using the death penalty against an athlete as a warning to its population about the consequences of increasing social unrest.
“The hastened secret execution, forced confession under torture as the sole evidence, closed trial and the lack of respect for the domestic requirements for reconciliation and the denial of a last family visit suggest that there was an attempt by the authorities to expedite his execution,” the experts said.
They called on Iran to immediately halt all executions of other protesters sentenced to death, saying its persistent execution of individuals for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly contravened universally accepted human rights principles and norms.