A human rights group called Friday for Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi to be protected after she was reportedly placed under house arrest for competing abroad without a hijab.
Rekabi competed last weekend in South Korea without wearing a headscarf, which is mandatory in Iran and a subject of nationwide protests sparked by the death Mahsa Amini.
Amini, 22, died last month after being arrested by the country’s notorious “morality police” for allegedly not properly covering her hair.
Rekabi’s act of what seemed to be open defiance has been described as a lightning-rod event in Iran. Activists say it lends support to the anti-government protests.
The Iranian rights group HRANA estimated Thursday that over 12,500 people have been arrested during the protests and 244 killed.
Citing an “informed source,” BBC Persian said Rekabi had been put under pressure to make a “forced confession” after her return Wednesday from the Asian Championships in sports climbing in Seoul.
The 33-year-old was given a hero’s welcome on her return to Tehran by supporters who raucously applauded her action, but the source told BBC Persian that she did not go home after arriving at the airport.
At Tehran's Imam Khomeini Airport, a crowd chants "Elnaz is a heroine" upon the arrival of Elnaz Rekabi, a female climber who competed without a hijab in Seoul and was later censured and forced into an apology by the Iranian authorities.#مهسا_امینی pic.twitter.com/RfaDyjRgPf
— Shayan Sardarizadeh (@Shayan86) October 19, 2022
“She was held at the national Olympics academy under the watch of plainclothes officers until she met the minister,” the report said, referring to Sports Minister Hamid Sajjadi.
Rekabi had been threatened with the seizure of 100 million rials ($312,000) worth of her family’s property unless she made the “forced confession,” the source was quoted as saying.
Sports in Iran, from soccer leagues to Rekabi’s competitive climbing, broadly operate under a series of semi-governmental organizations. Women athletes competing at home or abroad, whether playing volleyball or running track, are expected to keep their hair covered as a sign of piety.
On Friday, a New York-based human rights group called on the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) to do more to protect Rekabi.
IFSC “should engage with rights organizations to protect pro climber [Elnaz Rekabi] and all Iranian athletes,” the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) said on Twitter.
“Don’t take the government in Iran’s word at face value — it has a documented history of detaining, maiming and killing those who oppose it,” the group said.
Neither the climbing federation nor the International Olympic Committee has said how it will track how Rekabi is treated in Iran.
Fears had been raised about the fate of Rekabi after friends had reportedly been unable to contact her following the end of her involvement in the competition in Seoul.
News website Iran Wire said the head of Iran’s climbing federation had “tricked” her into entering the Iranian embassy in Seoul, promising her safe passage to Iran if she handed over her phone and passport.
In a historic move, Iranian athlete Elnaz Rekabi who represented Iran at the Asian Climbing Competitions finals in Seoul, competed without hijab, disobeying the Islamic Republic's restrictions for female athletes. pic.twitter.com/KvxE5NoQLi
— Iran International English (@IranIntl_En) October 16, 2022
Upon her return to Tehran, Rekabi apologized over what happened and insisted her hijab headscarf had accidentally slipped off.
But activists expressed fears at the time that her comments had been made under pressure from Iranian authorities.
Iran Wire said Friday that she “did not go home from the airport and instead was whisked — not to her home or family — but to meetings with Iran’s Minister of Sports.”
Human rights groups and activists have repeatedly accused the Islamic republic of coercing people into making statements of contrition on television or social media.
In the tight-knit climbing community, Rekabi has become an inspiration for many athletes who barely know her — or only know of her, and some of the world’s best climbers have expressed fear for her condition.
“It has made me ill — nauseous,” said American Brooke Raboutou, speaking to The Associated Press on Friday at a World Cup climbing event in northern Japan.
“I support her 100 percent and I’d like to think I can speak on behalf of most of the athletes,” she added. “I’ve reached out to her, just asking if there is anything we can do to help, to support. I know that she’s fighting a really hard battle and doing what she can to represent the women in her country.”
Raboutou said she had not received a reply.
“I feel I cannot understand how it feels,” French climber Oriane Bertone said. “Athletes from that country [Iran] are obligated to wear something. I feel like this is something she did knowing perfectly that she was risking something. And that must have been really hard.”
“We’re trying to be her voice because it’s not only concerning her, it’s concerning everyone in the country,” Bertone added.
Bertone was asked if she believes Rekabi is safe.
“She’s definitely not. She’s not safe right now,” Bertone said. “When we watched the [television] interview she did, she was trembling.”