Concerns are growing over an Iranian athlete who competed without her hijab

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — An Iranian competitor left South Korea on Tuesday after competing in a climbing event without the mandatory headscarf in her country, authorities said. Persian-language media outside Iran warned that Iranian officials may have forced her to leave early and that she could face arrest at home, a charge Tehran quickly denied.

The decision by Elnaz Rekabi, a multiple medalist in competitions, to forego the headscarf or hijab came as protests sparked by the September 16 death of a 22-year-old woman in custody entered their fifth week. Mahsa Amini was detained by the state moral police because of her clothes.

The demonstrations, which have drawn school-age children, oil workers and others onto the streets in more than 100 cities, represent the most serious challenge to Iran’s theocracy since mass protests surrounding its disputed 2009 presidential election.

A later Instagram post on an account attributed to Rekabi described her not wearing the hijab as “unintentional,” though it was not immediately clear whether she wrote the post or what her condition was at the time. The Iranian government routinely pressures activists at home and abroad, often airing what rights groups describe as forced confessions on state television.

Rekabi left Seoul on a flight this morning on Tuesday, the Iranian embassy in South Korea said. The BBC’s Persian service, which has extensive contacts inside Iran despite being banned from working there, quoted an unnamed “informed source” who described Iranian officials as having seized both Rekabi’s mobile phone and passport.

BBC Persian also said she was originally scheduled to return on Wednesday, but her flight was apparently unexpectedly delayed.

IranWire, another country-focused website founded by Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari who was once arrested by Iran, states that Rekabi will be immediately transferred to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison upon his arrival in the country. Evin Prison was the site of a major fire this weekend that killed at least eight inmates.

In a tweet, the Iranian embassy in Seoul denied “all false, fake news and misinformation” regarding Rekabi’s departure on Tuesday. But instead of her photo from the competition in Seoul, she posted a scarf of her from the previous competition in Moscow, where she won the bronze medal.

Calls to the Iranian embassy in Seoul went unanswered on Tuesday.

Rekabi did not wear a hijab during Sunday’s final at the International Sport Climbing Federation Asian Championships, according to the Seoul-based Korean Alpine Federation, the organizer of the event.

Federation officials said Rekabi wore a hijab during her first appearances at the week-long climbing event. She wore only a black headband at the competition on Sunday, her dark hair in a ponytail; she had a white jersey with an Iranian flag as a logo.

A later Instagram post, written in the first person, offered an apology on Rekabi’s behalf. The post blamed her sudden invitation to climb the wall in the competition – although footage of the competition showed Rekabi relaxed as she approached and after competing. It also sought to describe her trip back to Iran on Tuesday as “on schedule”.

Rekabi was part of Iran’s 11-member delegation, which consisted of eight athletes and three coaches, at the event, according to the federation.

Federation officials said they were initially unaware that Rekabi was competing without a hijab, but investigated the case after receiving inquiries about her. They said the event does not have any rules requiring female athletes to wear or not wear headscarves. However, Iranian women who compete abroad under the Iranian flag always wear the hijab.

“Our understanding is that she is returning to Iran and we will continue to monitor the situation as it develops upon her arrival,” the International Sport Climbing Federation, which oversaw the event, said in a statement. “It is important to emphasize that the safety of the athletes is paramount to us and we support all efforts to keep a valued member of our community safe in this situation.”

The federation said it had been in contact with both Rekabi and Iranian officials, but declined to elaborate on the substance of those calls when contacted by The Associated Press. The federation also declined to discuss the Instagram post attributed to Rekabi and the allegations in it.

Later on Tuesday, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry acknowledged that the Iranian athlete and her team had left the country, without elaborating.

Rekabi, 33, has been on the podium three times at the Asian Championships, with one silver and two bronze medals for her efforts.

Human rights groups have so far estimated that more than 200 people have been killed in the protests and the violent crackdown by security forces that followed. Iran has not offered a death toll for weeks. Demonstrations were seen in over 100 cities, according to the group Activists for Human Rights in Iran. Thousands are believed to have been arrested.

However, gathering information about the demonstrations remains difficult. The Iranian government has been disrupting internet access for weeks. Meanwhile, authorities detained at least 40 journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have repeatedly claimed that foreign enemies of the country, not Iranians angered by Amini’s death and the country’s other problems, are behind the ongoing demonstrations.

Iranians saw their life savings disappear; the country’s currency, the rial, has plummeted and Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers has been torn to shreds.

In a statement on Tuesday, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called for the immediate release of all those “arbitrarily detained” in the protests. He also criticized the “unmitigated violent response by the security forces” in which even children were allegedly arrested and killed.

“The continuation of unnecessary and disproportionate use of force against protesters must stop,” the statement said. “Arresting people solely for exercising their rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression is an arbitrary deprivation of liberty.”

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