A Twitter post late last week by U.S. President Donald Trump urging Iran to spare the life of a young Iranian wrestler who has been sentenced to two death sentences has brought sweeping attention to the case and an outpouring of support from around the globe.

“Hearing that Iran is looking to execute a great and popular wrestling star, 27-year-old Navid Afkarai, whose sole act was an anti-government demonstration on the streets. They were protesting the ‘country’s worsening economic situation and inflation’…” Trump tweeted on Sept. 4.

Who if Navid Afkari?

The 27 year old is a champion wrestler who has represented Iran and medalled in multiple national and international wrestling tournaments. In 2018, he joined a peaceful anti-government demonstration and was arrested along with his two brothers. Navid is single and works as a plasterer, according to Iran News Wire, which also published an audio message from Navid in prison and a detailed list of charges.

Navid was sentenced to two death sentences and six years in prison after he confessed to the murder of a security agent following his arrest during the nationwide demonstrations in 2018. Since then he and his two brothers, who are also imprisoned, have been tortured and lashed, but have not received medical treatment. Vahid, 35, was sentenced to 54 years in prison while Habib, 29, was sentenced to 27. Another protester  charged in the case, Saied Dashtaki, 22, was sentenced to 21 years in prison. All four men received a sentence of 74 lashes as well.

Immediately after Trump’s appeal, Iranian state TV aired Navid’s taped confession, but many human rights groups are concerned the confession was extracted under torture.

Hassan Younesi, an attorney for the brothers, said there was no video of “the moment of the security guard’s killing. He added that footage used as evidence in the case was taken an hour before the crime took place,” the BBC reported.

Navid’s appeal has been rejected.

Who is coming to his defense?

Human rights activists, wrestlers, Amerian and international sporting organizations and Iranian-Americans are outraged by the sentences.

“There’s no question in my mind … he’s been sentenced to death for peaceful protest and to be made an example of,” said Rob Koehler, director general of Global Athlete, a lobbying group for athletes. “He’s being used as an example, and that’s why we’re calling on all athletes to speak up.”

Koehler fears his execution is imminent.

VOA Persian spoke with Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, who said Iran is using executions of participants in anti-government protests to make a point.

“This political use of the judiciary is highly condemnable, and we should not allow the sentence against Navid Afkari to be carried out,” Ghaemi said. “We also should not allow Iran to carry out a wave of executions as it did in the 1980s.”

World Players Association Director Brendan Schwab said an execution of the Iranian wrestler would be a “repudiation of the humanitarian values that underpin sport” and should “result in Iran forfeiting its right to be a part of sport’s universal community.”

“Navid was one of thousands of Iranian citizens who took part in spontaneous demonstrations that year against economic hardship and political repression in Iran,” said a statement from the WPA.
“However, he has been unjustly targeted by the Iranian authorities who want to make an example out of a popular, high-profile athlete and intimidate others who might dare exercise their human right to participate in peaceful protest.”

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), in a statement to CNN, said it has been in “constant contact” with the National Olympic Committee of Iran and the Iranian Wrestling Federation, both of which are “doing their utmost to facilitate a solution.”

UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) President Dana White appealed to Iranian authorities saying, “He is one of us. He could be any of my fighters.”

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