Amir Assadollahzadeh: Fearing torture and possible execution, Iranian weightlifter left the team in Norway and ran for his life

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By Don Riddell, CNN

Athletes who are good enough to compete in the World Championships are some of the best in their field. They dedicate their lives to pursuing their profession, they are proud to represent their country, and they all dream of coming home with medals around their necks.

But at the IPF World Powerlifting Championships held in November, one athlete was not competing for glory; Iranian Amir Assadollahzadeh says he literally found himself running for his life.

The 31-year-old Iranian athlete told CNN that in the middle of the tournament he felt compelled to abandon his team and run away from his teammates.

He had been agonizing over a decision that would change his life forever, but around 3:30 a.m. he had made up his mind and escaped from his hotel in the Norwegian town of Stavanger on the North Sea coast.

“I took what I needed for my trip and left,” recalls Assadollahzadeh. “I ran quickly to the bus station, but got there five minutes too late. It was very dark and I was very stressed.

As he waited, he constantly reassessed his decision, and paranoia set in now as well; if someone came looking for him, he felt exposed and vulnerable.

“I had no choice,” he explained, “I tried to run the street directly past the hotel at full speed until I finally reached a gas station with a store. next door I asked the man who worked there to get me a cab.

Using his cell phone, Assadollahzadeh had planned his trip to Norway’s capital, Oslo, but he already had to think about it on the fly. He took a taxi to the next city and waited several hours before taking the bus to Oslo.

But he couldn’t shake the fear of being tracked. “I was very stressed and very worried that they might find me,” he said. “At one of the stops, I got off the bus and threw my phone in the water.”

Eventually he arrived in the capital, but despite putting almost 200 miles between him and his team, he was horrified to see one of his fellow athletes at Oslo train station. Fearing that he would be prosecuted, Assadollahzadeh fled again.

“It was then that I ran two miles in the middle of the cold night and escaped.”

Assadollahzadeh says that if he had been forced to return to Iran, “I am 100% sure that I will face prison, torture and maybe even worse than that: execution.”

“Your life can also be in danger”

Assadollahzadeh had a rich career in weightlifting. He has been competing for 18 years, and in 11 years with the Iranian national team, he has won four Asian league titles. He is also a referee and trainer and is no stranger to the biggest events in sport.

Earlier in 2021, however, his relationship with the national team began to deteriorate. Assadollahzadeh won a bronze medal at the Club League World Championship, and he dedicated it to healthcare professionals who had battled the Covid-19 pandemic at home.

Such a charitable gesture would have been applauded in almost any other setting, but instead, he was asked why he had not dedicated his medal to Qassem Soleimani, the late military officer who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2020.

At the time of his death, Soleimani was the commander of the infamous Quds underground force and considered by many analysts to be the right-hand man of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Soleimani and Assadolazadeh are both from the same province in Iran, and his dedication to healthcare workers has been seen as a snub to Soleimani’s memory.

So, at the time of the IPF World Championships in November, Assadolahzadeh said he had been told by senior team officials that he had to redeem himself by taking a picture of Soleimani in the arena of the competition.

According to Assadolahzadeh, the vice president of the federation, who was with the Iranian team, demanded that he wear a T-shirt that boldly featured a photo of Soleimani.

Assadollahzadeh says he was able to retrieve the t-shirt when he fled the hotel and held it up for the camera during the interview. He says he was pressured repeatedly by the vice president and team leader to wear it.

“I refused to wear the shirt and faced threats,” Assadollahzadeh said. Then he was told: “If you refuse to wear the shirt, when you return to Iran, you and your family will face problems,” Assadollahzadeh added.

“And you will be treated like someone who is against the regime and someone who refused to work with us. Your life can also be in danger.

Assadollahzadeh says he tried to explain to his superiors that the rules of the competition prevented him from wearing anything with an image or logo and that this risked his expulsion from the competition. In any case, he added that he was against the idea of ​​mixing politics and sport.

Recounting his previous triumphs, Assadollahzadeh told CNN: “During those years that I was an athlete, I never intended to get involved in political matters, because I am an athlete and j have spent years of my life bringing honor. to myself, my people and my country.

Instead of resting at the hotel the night before his competition, Assadollahzadeh says he couldn’t even sleep because he was grappling with life-changing decisions, and none of the results were good.

The next day, his performance was so poor that it still bothered him weeks after his life had been turned upside down, and the pressure on him was relentless.

Assadollahzadeh says he was once again confronted with the team manager and one of the sports security officials and had one last chance to comply.

He says he was informed: “Either you will wear the t-shirt on stage, so that we can take pictures and videos and send them to Iran, or we will take legal action against you when you return to Iran.”

He felt his only realistic option now was to leave the team, flee the hotel, seek asylum abroad and risk never seeing any of his family again.

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Assadollahzadeh had good reason to be concerned.

In 2018, the Iranian water polo player Amir Dehdari refused to meet with the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. He says he was arrested and flogged for his defiant attitude. The video he took after the event shows his back and legs almost completely covered in horizontal red markings.

He now lives in exile in Belgium, but Dehdari has not spoken of his torture for two years. He only came forward after joining the United for Navid campaign, an advocacy group created to support the wrestler Navid Afkari, who was executed in Iran in 2020.

In October, Iranian boxer Omid Ahmadi Safa reached the kickboxing world championship final in Italy, but he never showed up to compete for the gold medal.

Instead, he also fled the team’s hotel, fearing for his life, after taking a selfie video that showed him standing next to the Israeli team and their flag in what appears to be a rally. of all the teams on a field.

In subsequent media interviews, Safa explained the situation and revealed that he was now under pressure to return home to Iran. He is currently seeking asylum in Europe.

In the same month, according to Iranian media, Iranian chess grandmaster Mohammad Amin Tabatabaei was forced to withdraw from the Abbey Blitz tournament in Latvia to avoid facing an Israeli opponent.

For many years, it was an open secret in international sports circles that the Iranian government will not allow its athletes to compete against the Israelis.

But in September, Iran’s Supreme Leader made the regime’s position much clearer.

Speaking at a televised press conference, Khamenei said: “This is why I ask you and you and dear sports officials and athletes not to be ashamed. They will continue to fight us. It is therefore the duty of our Ministry of Sports, our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and legal channels to support our athletes.

“We cannot let our athletes compete with the athletes of a murderous regime for a medal. “

In 2020, the Iranian government executed wrestler Afkari. He was convicted of murder, although his family and human rights activists claim his trial was a sham.

Since then, a growing number of athletes have found the courage to speak out against the pressures and intimidation they face. Thanks to the United for Navid campaign, they also now have a way to tell their stories to the world.

On two occasions, CNN has contacted the Iranian government to comment on Afkari’s treatment, the politicization of the sport and the alleged discrimination against athletes. CNN has yet to receive a response.

the International Olympic Committee proudly claims to protect its athletes through its “Olympic Charter”, but it has been made aware of the abuses of which these athletes are victims.

This year, the United for Navid campaign sent several case study packages to the IOC.

In response to CNN, the IOC said it was “in regular contact with the National Olympic Committee (NOC) of Iran on this matter,” adding that the committee had received assurances that Iran was “committed to fully comply with the Olympic Charter “.

The IOC told CNN: “To our knowledge, there has been no violation of the principle of non-discrimination by athletes representing Iran during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.”

The IOC also stated that it had written to the Iranian NOC expressing concern over the Supreme Guide’s recent comments on athlete participation: “The IOC urged the Iranian NOC to clarify the situation and asked for assurances that the NOC will still function. in accordance with the Charter in accordance with its obligations and we have received such assurances in a letter from them.

“My father’s tears”

Based on their testimonials, however, the athletes would strongly disagree.

Assadollahzadeh proudly traveled to Norway for an international competition and the chance to make his country and his family proud.

A month later, he was being treated in a refugee camp in Germany, before returning to seek asylum in Norway. All because of a garish T-shirt, he now faces a very uncertain future.

It hurts Assadollahzadeh that he does not know when he will reunite with his wife and says he is unlikely to see his country or his family again.

A sudden, unexpected punch like this would be unthinkable for most people and certainly for international athletes.

Assadollahzadeh struggled with his emotions and concluded: “The regime of the Islamic Republic is trying very hard to involve athletes in politics.

“I ask the International Olympic Committee and all related organizations to help Iranian athletes and not accept that these athletes are forced to stay away from their country, from their home, simply because they have no no choice but to leave.

“I am very, very, very unhappy that I may never see my family again. It is very painful for me. It’s very difficult for me to express it in words.

He may not have the words, but he will never forget the impact on his family. Her dad started crying when they spoke on the phone: “It was the first time in my life that I saw my dad’s tears.”

The-CNN-Wire
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