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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In silence or aloud, high-profile Iranians signal support for protests

Iranian players standing in pointed silence as their national anthem was played at the World Cup in Doha on Monday.

By Cora Engelbrecht and Jeré Longman

At the World Cup in Qatar, Iran’s soccer players earlier this week declined to sing their country’s national anthem. In Tehran, two well-known actresses were arrested over the weekend for defiantly removing their headscarves. And at least nine prominent Iranians were summoned for questioning for daring to criticize authorities.

High-profile Iranians are increasingly making public gestures of support for the protests that have gripped the country for the past two months, posting photos and messages critical of the government on social media or flouting the country’s strict hijab laws.

In perhaps the most dramatic display, televised around the world, Iran’s national soccer team stood silently as the national anthem was played before a game against England on Monday, while some Iran fans in the stands sang the pre-revolutionary national anthem instead.

Fans carrying pre-revolutionary flags — viewed as a symbol of protest against Iran’s theocratic government — were barred from entering the stadium in Qatar on Monday for the Iranian team’s opening match against England unless they surrendered them. At least one fan held up a “Woman! Life! Freedom!” sign during the match, and some Iranian fans could be heard chanting “without honor” — both slogans adopted by protesters in Iran to condemn the Iranian regime and security forces.

The displays at the World Cup highlighted the extent to which many prominent Iranians, including artists, musicians and athletes, have publicly come out in support of the protest movement.

Anger over the country’s dress restrictions for women and their enforcement helped fueled the protests. They were sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman, in the custody of the morality police in September after she was accused of violating the law on headscarves. But they have morphed into broader calls to end the Islamic Republic.

Some 15,000 Iranians have been arrested and several hundred killed after two months of protests and a heavy crackdown by authorities in dozens of cities across Iran, according to rights groups.

Many high-profile Iranians, among them musicians, artists and journalists, have been targeted by authorities for coming out in support of the protesters, in what appears to be an effort to undercut the momentum of the largely leaderless movement.

Two prominent actresses, Hengameh Ghaziani and Katayoun Riahi, were arrested Sunday for removing their headscarves and participating in the protests, according to state-run news media. The actresses were charged with “collusion with the intention of acting against the state security” and “propaganda against the state,” IRNA, Iran’s state-run news agency, said.

In a statement posted to her personal Instagram account Saturday, Ghaziani, 52, denounced the government for its crackdown on the young people who have joined the demonstrations.

“How many children, teenagers and young people have you killed — is it not enough with the bloodshed?” she said in her post. “I hate you, and your historical reputation.

“This may be my last post,” she added.

Ghaziani was arrested the next day, hours after uploading another video, from the streets of Tehran, in which she is seen staring defiantly into the camera with no head covering before turning her back and tying a ponytail in her hair.

“From this moment on, whatever happens to me, know that I will be with the people of Iran until my last breath,” she wrote in the post, which garnered an outpouring of support and concern over her fate as it coursed through social media.

Ghaziani was taken to the prosecutor’s office hours later by security personnel, who said that the charges against her included “communication with opposition and counterrevolutionary media,” according to IRNA.

Riahi, 60, who was also arrested Sunday, removed her hijab publicly in mid-September in an Instagram post and for an interview with TV channel Iran International, in which she said she had always opposed the law and was ready “to show the truth.”

Security forces arrested her at her villa in Qazvin, northwest of Tehran, according to the semiofficial news agency Tasmin.

A number of prominent Iranians, including “five movie personalities,” were summoned to the prosecutor’s office Saturday for publishing “unverified comments about the recent events, as well as the publication of provocative material in support of street riots,” according to the news agency Mizan, which is owned by the Iranian judiciary. The agency did not give a total number for those summoned but named nine people.

One of the people summoned for questioning by authorities in Tehran over the weekend was a former defender on Iran’s national team, Yahya Golmohammadi.

Players on Iran’s national team and in its domestic soccer league have recently become emboldened in supporting the protests by not singing the country’s national anthem and by declining to celebrate goals scored. That carried into the World Cup match against England on Monday, which Iran lost, 6-2. There was no celebration by Iranian players after either of their goals.

Speaking at a news conference Sunday, Ehsan Hajsafi, the team’s captain, said, “We have to accept that the conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy.”

“We are here, but it does not mean that we should not be their voice, or we must not respect them,” he added.

Carlos Queiroz, the Portuguese coach of the Iranian national team, told reporters last week that players were free to protest “as long as it conforms with the World Cup regulations and is in the spirit of the game.”

The players find themselves in a difficult position. Displays of activism carry the risk of reprisal from Iranian authorities, especially for players who must return home to play in Iran’s domestic soccer league.

To show no solidarity with the protests could lead to harsh criticism from fans; many do not believe Iran should participate in this World Cup because of the unrest in the country. Some activists had called for Iran to be banned from the tournament. More recently, some fans were outraged when photos emerged of the players in frivolous, celebratory poses as children were being killed in the protests.

“Iran is a nation of soccer fanatics, but I think decades from now what Iranians will remember most about this World Cup is not who played well but who showed heart,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a recent email.

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