Pressure mounts on protest-linked Iranian athletes

Pressure mounts on protest-linked Iranian athletes

Water polo players now competing in Thailand under fire for not singing anthem

Members of Iran’s national water polo team gather before their match with South Korea in the Asian Water Polo Championship at Assumption University in Samut Prakan on Wednesday. (Reuters Photo)
Members of Iran’s national water polo team gather before their match with South Korea in the Asian Water Polo Championship at Assumption University in Samut Prakan on Wednesday. (Reuters Photo)

An Iranian cleric has called for the punishment of athletes who fail to sing the national anthem, which could be trouble for the national men’s water polo team when it returns home from Thailand.

The Iranian team will meet China on Sunday for a place in the final of the Asian Water Polo Championship, which is being held at the Assumption University Aquatic Center in Samut Prakan.

The winner of the Iran-China semifinal will play the winner of Japan-Kazakhstan in the final on Monday.

But the real drama is taking place away from the pool, after social media video showed team members not singing their country’s anthem after a competition earlier this week.

They are among a number of Iranian athletes who appear to have been lending their support to weeks-long protests at home that followed the death of a young woman detained by police for “inappropriate attire”.

Some female athletes seen competing without headscarves have said it was an oversight or accident.

On Friday archer Parmida Ghasemi said she did not notice her hijab falling from her head during an awards ceremony in Tehran, after a video appeared to show her allowing the headscarf to drop in what was widely assumed to be a show of support for the nationwide protests.

In a video posted on Instagram, she said she had not noticed the hijab falling “due to wind and a lot of stress”.

“This led to reactions which caused some misunderstandings. My family and I have not, nor have ever had, any problem with the hijab. I wanted to apologise to the people, officials and my teammates,” she said, wearing a headscarf in the video.

Her statement prompted comments on social media suggesting it had been made under pressure. Human rights groups say Iranian authorities have a track record of airing forced confessions. Iranian officials reject such accusations.

Iran has been by swept protests since 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in the custody of morality police nearly two months ago.

Women have waved and burned headscarves — mandatory under Iran’s conservative dress codes — during the demonstrations that mark one of the boldest challenges to the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution.

Videos posted on social media purportedly showed Iran’s national basketball team refraining from singing the national anthem during a match with China in Tehran on Friday, after social media videos earlier this week showed the water polo team also failing to sing it at a competition in Thailand.

A cleric in the northwestern city of Urmia called during prayers on Friday for the punishment of athletes who refrain from singing the anthem, according to Iranian news agencies.

Last month, Iranian sport climber Elnaz Rekabi caused controversy by competing in an international competition without a headscarf, later saying she had done so unintentionally and apologising.

Iran’s deputy sports minister, Maryam Kazemipour, said on Wednesday some Iranian female athletes have acted against Islamic norms and then apologised for their actions.

Last week, national beach soccer team players refused to sing Iran’s anthem at the beginning of a match against the United Arab Emirates in Dubai, according to a widely followed activist Twitter account known as 1500tasvir.

Then on Sunday, the players did not cheer or celebrate after defeating Brazil to win the championship, the account said.

The Asian Water Polo Championship in Thailand is a qualification for the 2023 World Water Polo Championship to be held in Fukuoka, Japan.

The top two teams as well as hosts Japan will take part in the world championship.

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