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Iran arrests ex-international footballer who backed protests

Voria Ghafouri, an outspoken figure who appeared 28 times for Iran up until 2019, was arrested during a club training session
— Paris (AFP)

Iran on Thursday arrested a former international football player of Kurdish origin who has strongly supported the protests that have rocked the country since September, news agencies said.

Voria Ghafouri, an outspoken figure who appeared 28 times for Iran up until 2019, was arrested after a club training session over accusations that he spread "propaganda" against the Islamic republic, the Fars news agency reported.

He is one of the most prominent figures arrested in a widescale crackdown on protests, amid intense scrutiny on the conduct of the national team at the World Cup in Qatar.

The team refrained from singing the national anthem at their first match against England on Monday.

But concern is also growing over the extent of the authorities' crackdown in the western Kurdish areas of Iran from which Ghafouri hails, with rights groups saying dozens have been killed over the last week alone.

Ghafouri was detained after a training session with his club Foolad Khuzestan on charges of having "tarnished the reputation of the national team and spread propaganda against the state", the Fars new agency said.

Kurdish-focused rights group Hengaw, based in Norway, also said he had been arrested, posting a picture of the player in traditional Kurdish dress.

Former Iranian international footballer Ali Karimi, another outspoken supporter of the protests, also posted the same photo of Ghafouri on his Twitter account in support of the player.

"For the honourable Voria," he wrote.

- 'Stood behind his people' -

Ghafouri, 35, was listed as a member of Iran's 2018 World Cup squad but was not named in the final lineup playing at this year's World Cup in Qatar.

Originally from the Kurdish-populated city of Sanandaj in western Iran, Ghafouri had posted a photo of himself on Instagram in traditional Kurdish dress.

Iran has seen more than two months of demonstrations sparked by the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, herself of Kurdish origin, after she was arrested for an alleged breach of the country's strict dress code for women.

The protests have swelled into a broad movement against the ruling theocracy.

Ghafouri had on his social media accounts strongly backed the protests and also reportedly visited the Kurdish-populated areas of Iran to express solidarity with families of the victims of the crackdown.

He won particular praise for visiting the young daughter of a woman who had been killed in the protests and giving her a tablet as a gift.

"Voria stood behind his people and paid for it. We should also stand behind him and not let him be alone," tweeted US-based dissident Masih Alinejad.

- 'Not our enemies' -

Ghafouri was formerly the captain of Iran's leading club Esteghlal before his contract was terminated and he moved to Foolad Khuzestan.

Many fans suggested the ending of his career with Esteghlal was revenge for speaking out in support of earlier protests that erupted this summer. Others argued that in his mid-30s Ghafouri was already too old for the Iranian top flight.

Ghafouri is not the first big sports name to have been caught up in the crackdown.

International footballer Hossein Mahini was arrested in October for supporting the protests but was later released.

The international side won plaudits abroad for their refusal to sing the anthem at the match on Monday.

But many Iranians have criticised the team for meeting President Ebrahim Raisi just before leaving for Qatar as the protests raged.

"They players out not our enemies," Iran's Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz this week wrote on Instagram in response to the anger.

After losing 6-2 to England, Team Melli's next match is against Wales on Friday.

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