Iranian sport climber Elnaz Rekabi sent home, fate uncertain after competing without hijab | CBC News

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An Iranian competitive climber left South Korea on Tuesday after competing in an event in which she climbed without her country’s mandatory veil, authorities said. Farsi-language media outlets outside Iran warned that Iranian officials may have forced her to leave early and that she could face arrest in her country, which Tehran quickly denied.

Elnaz Rekabi’s decision to give up the veil, or hijab, came as protests sparked by the death in custody of a 22-year-old woman on September 16 entered their fifth week. Mahsa Amini was arrested by the country’s moral police for her clothes.

The demonstrations, which are drawing schoolchildren, oil workers and others onto the streets in more than 100 cities, represent the most serious challenge to Iran’s theocracy since the mass protests surrounding the disputed 2009 presidential election.

A subsequent Instagram post on an account attributed to Rekabi, a multiple competition medalist, described her not wearing a hijab as “involuntary”, though it was not immediately clear if she wrote the post or what condition she was in at the time.

Rekabi left Seoul on a flight Tuesday morning, the Iranian embassy in South Korea said.

The BBC’s Persian Service, which has extensive contacts inside Iran despite being banned from operating there, quoted an unnamed “informed source” who described Iranian officials as seizing Rekabi’s mobile phone and passport.

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BBC Persian also said that she was initially scheduled to return on Wednesday, but apparently her flight had unexpectedly been brought forward.

IranWire, another country-focused website founded by Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, who was once detained by Iran, alleged that Rekabi would be immediately transferred to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison after arriving in the country. Evin prison was the site of a massive fire this weekend that killed at least eight prisoners.

Later on Tuesday, the South Korean Foreign Ministry acknowledged that the Iranian athlete and her team had left the country, without giving further details.

Apology in Instagram post

In a tweet, the Iranian embassy in Seoul denied “all false news and misinformation” about Rekabi’s departure on Tuesday. But instead of posting a photo of her at the Seoul competition, she posted a picture of herself wearing a headscarf at an earlier competition in Moscow, where she earned a bronze medal.

Rekabi did not wear a hijab during Sunday’s final at the International Sport Climbing Federation Asia Championships, according to the Seoul-based Korea Alpine Federation, the event’s organizers.

Federation officials said Rekabi wore a hijab during her initial appearances at the week-long climbing event. He wore only a black headband when he competed on Sunday, his dark hair pulled back in a ponytail; she had a white T-shirt with the Iranian flag as a logo.

Protesters chant slogans as they march during the Solidarity March for Iran in Washington, DC, on Saturday. Demonstrations have broken out inside Iran and around the world following Mahsa Amini’s death in custody in mid-September. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

The subsequent Instagram post, written in the first person, offered an apology on Rekabi’s behalf. The publication blamed a sudden call for her to climb the wall in the competition, though footage from the competition showed Rekabi relaxing as she approached and after competing. She also tried to describe her return trip to Iran on Tuesday as “on time.”

Rekabi was in Iran’s 11-member delegation, made up of eight athletes and three coaches, to the event, according to the federation.

Federation officials said they were initially unaware of Rekabi competing without the hijab, but investigated the case after receiving inquiries about her. They said the event has no rules that require athletes to wear or not wear headscarves. However, Iranian women competing abroad under the Iranian flag always wear the hijab.

“It is our understanding that she will return to Iran and we will continue to monitor the situation as it develops upon her arrival,” the International Sport Climbing Federation, which oversaw the event, said in a statement. “It is important to emphasize that the safety of the athletes is paramount to us and we support any effort to keep a valued member of our community safe in this situation.”

The federation said it had been in contact with both Rekabi and Iranian officials, but declined to provide further details about the content of those calls when contacted by The Associated Press. The federation also refused to discuss the Instagram post attributed to Rekabi and the claims it contains.

Hundreds of deaths in protests

Rekabi, 33, has finished on the podium three times at the Asian Championships, taking home one silver and two bronze medals for her efforts.

So far, human rights groups estimate that more than 200 people have been killed in the protests and the violent crackdown by security forces that followed. Iran has not offered a death toll in weeks. Demonstrations have been seen in more than 100 cities, according to the group Human Rights Activists in Iran. Thousands are believed to have been arrested.

front burner27:16The long struggle for women’s rights in Iran

Since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s morality police on September 16, protests have broken out across Iran and in some 160 cities around the world, with some of the largest protests taking place took place here in Canada. Despite the violent crackdown on demonstrations in Iran, protesters continue to take to the streets. And the women have stayed out front, sometimes burning their scarves or cutting their hair. But this is far from the first time that women have led protest movements in the country. So today we’re looking at how the Mahsa Amini demonstrations fit into a long history of women’s activism in Iran, and whether or not this time feels different. Our guest is Mona Tajali, Associate Professor of International Relations and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Agnes Scott College. She is also the author of the recent book Women’s Political Representation in Iran and Turkey: Demanding a Seat at the Table.

However, it remains difficult to collect information on the demonstrations. The Iranian government has cut off Internet access for weeks. Meanwhile, authorities have 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 foreign enemies are behind the ongoing demonstrations, rather than Iranians angry over Amini’s death and the country’s other problems.

Iranians have seen their life savings evaporate; the country’s currency, the rial, collapses; and Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers has been torn to shreds.

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