Germany has granted refugee status to an Iranian judo star who said he is afraid to return home after exposing and criticizing his government’s pressure on him to deliberately lose in the World Championships in Tokyo last summer to avoid a potential bout against an Israeli opponent.
Saeid Mollaei, the defending heavyweight world champion, fled to Berlin after the championships, where he is hoping to secure a place at the 2020 Olympic games.
The International Judo Federation said in a Saturday statement that Mollaei had obtained the refugee status “in record time, thanks to the diligence of the German authorities.”
Responding to the news, Mollaei said, “I am very happy and I want to thank from the bottom of my heart everybody who helped me in those difficult moments. Now I can fully concentrate on judo and the preparation for the next IJF events and for the Olympic Games.”
Mollaei said that he was coerced into losing his World Championship semifinal bout so as not to risk facing Israel’s Sagi Muki, the eventual winner, in the Tokyo final. The IJF said Mollaei had been pressured to lose by Iranian deputy sports minister Davar Zani. Mollaei and was also reportedly pressured to bow out by Iranian Olympic Committee president Reza Salehi Amiri, who told him minutes before his semifinal match that Iranian security services were at his parents’ house in Tehran.
Mollaei, who was on track to face Muki in the finals of the men’s under-81 kilogram class, told the IJF that he bowed to the pressure and deliberately lost to Belgium’s Matthias Casse in the semifinals to avoid having to face the Israeli athlete, who ended up winning gold.
“Because of the law in my country… I was obliged not to fight against my Israeli opponent,” Mollaei told the IJF in an interview after the championships. “They said: ‘This is the law, and those who do not comply with it will certainly have problems.'”
“I need help. Even if the authorities of my country told me that I can go back without any problems, I am afraid,” he told the IJF. “I am afraid of what might happen to my family and to myself.”
The International Judo Federation has thrown its support behind Mollaei, and has vowed help him reach the summer 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo.
Iran does not recognize Israel and Iranian passports remind holders in bold red they are “not entitled to travel to occupied Palestine.”
Last week, the IJF announced a decision to confirm a provisional ban on Iran over its refusal to allow its fighters to face Israeli judokas.