DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Iranian competitive mountaineer Elnaz Rekabi was greeted like a hero on her return to Tehran early Wednesday after competing in South Korea without wearing a mandatory hijab for female athletes from the Islamic Republic.
Rekabi’s decision not to wear the hijab while competing on Sunday came when the protests in September ignited. The 16 deaths in custody of a 22-year-old woman have entered the fifth week. Mahsa Amini detained by the country’s morality police for her clothes — and her death saw women remove their mandatory hijab in public.
The demonstrations that drew school-aged children, oil workers and others to the streets in more than 100 cities represent the most serious challenge to Iran’s theocracy since the mass protests surrounding the controversial 2009 presidential election.
Supporters outside Iran and Persian media are concerned about Rekabi’s safety after choosing to compete without the hijab..
On Wednesday, Rekabi echoed a statement previously posted on an Instagram account on her behalf, describing her not wearing a hijab as “unintentional”. The Iranian government routinely pressures activists at home and abroad, often broadcasts what rights groups describe as forced confessions on state television – The same cameras he was looking at when he got home.
In a video shared online, large crowds gathered at Imam Khomeini International Airport outside Tehran, the sanctioned nation’s main gateway to the country, early Wednesday. Videos corresponding to the familiar features of the airport showed the crowd shouting the name of 33-year-old Rekabi and calling him a hero.
He entered one of the airport’s terminals, filmed by state media, wearing a black baseball cap and a black hoodie that covered his hair. She received flowers from a viewer and then reiterated on Instagram that not wearing a hijab was “unintentional” and that her trip was as pre-planned.
Rekabi explained that he was in a waiting area for women before the ascent.
“Because I was busy putting on my shoes and clothes, it made me forget to put on my hijab and then I went to the competition,” she said.
Despite experiencing a lot of tension and stress, I returned to Iran with peace of mind. But so far, nothing has happened, thankfully.”
Outside, she apparently got into a van and was driven slowly through the gathered crowd, which cheered her up. It was unclear where he went after that.
Rekabi left Seoul on a plane on Tuesday morning. Although it is prohibited from operating in Iran, the BBC’s Persian service, which has extensive connections in Iran, cited an anonymous “informed source” who said Iranian officials had confiscated Rekabi’s mobile phone and passport.
BBC Persian also said that he was originally scheduled to return on Wednesday, but apparently his flight was unexpectedly delayed.
Another website focused on the country founded by IranWire Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist who was once detained by IranHe claimed that Rekabi would be transferred to the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran soon after he arrived in the country. House Prison was the site of a massive fire that killed at least eight inmates this past weekend..
The Iranian Embassy in Seoul denied in a tweet “all fake, false news and disinformation” about Rekabi’s departure. But instead of posting a photo of her from the Seoul competition, she posted a photo of her wearing a headscarf at a previous competition in Moscow where she won a bronze medal.
In the final of the International Sport Climbing Federation’s Asian Championship on Sunday, Rekabi did not wear a headscarf.
Rekabi wore a headscarf when she first appeared at the one-week climbing event. He only wore a black headband while racing on Sundayher dark hair gathered in a ponytail; He was wearing a white swimsuit with the Iranian flag on it.
Footage from the competition showed Rekabi relaxing as she approached the climb and after the competition.
Iranian women competing abroad under the Iranian flag always wear hijab.
“As far as we understand, he is returning to Iran and we will continue to monitor the situation as it develops after his arrival,” the International Sport Climbing Federation, which oversees the event, said in a statement. Said. “It is important to stress that the safety of athletes is very important to us and in this situation we support every effort to keep a valued member of our community safe.”
The federation said it was in contact with both Rekabi and Iranian officials, but declined to provide details on the content of those calls when it reached the Associated Press. The federation also declined to discuss the Instagram post attributed to Rekabi and the allegations in it.
South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs accepted the departure of the Iranian athlete and his team from the country without detailing. On Wednesday, a small group of protesters demonstrated in front of Iran’s Embassy in Seoul, with some women cutting their locks of hair, as in demonstrations around the world since Amini’s death.
So far, human rights groups estimate that more than 200 people have died in the protests and the violent security force crackdown that followed. Iran has not released the death toll for weeks. Demonstrations were seen in more than 100 cities, according to the Human Rights Activists group in Iran. Thousands are believed to have been arrested.
But gathering information about the shows remains difficult. Internet access has been interrupted for weeks by the Iranian government. 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 the country’s external enemies were behind the ongoing demonstrations, rather than Iranian anger at Amini’s death and other troubles in the country.
The Iranians saw their savings of life vanish; the country’s currency, the rial, depreciated and Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers shattered.
Associated Press writer Ahn Young-joon from Seoul, South Korea contributed to this report.
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.
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