A competitive Iranian climber left South Korea on Tuesday after competing in an event where she climbed without her nation’s mandatory headscarf, authorities said. Farsi-language media outside Iran warned that she may have been forced to leave early by Iranian officials and that she could be arrested at home, which Tehran quickly denied.
Elnaz Rekabi’s decision to renounce the veil, or hijab, came as protests sparked by the September 16 death in custody of a 22-year-old woman entered week five. Mahsa Amini was arrested by the country’s moral police for her clothes.
The demonstrations, which brought school-age children, oil workers and others onto the streets in more than 100 cities, represent the most serious challenge to Iranian theocracy since the mass protests surrounding the disputed presidential election in 2009.
A subsequent Instagram post on an account attributed to Rekabi, a multi-medal winner in competitions, described her as “unintentional” not to wear the hijab, although it wasn’t 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 within Iran despite being banned from operating there, cited an anonymous “informed source” who described Iranian officials as they seized both Rekabi’s cell phone and passport.
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BBC Persian also said it was originally scheduled to return on Wednesday, but apparently its flight was unexpectedly rescheduled.
IranWire, another country-focused website founded by Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari who was once detained by Iran, said Rekabi would be immediately transferred to the infamous Evin prison in Tehran after arriving in the country. Evin Prison was the scene 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 his team had left the country, without elaborating.
Apologies in the Instagram post
In a tweet, the Iranian embassy in Seoul denied “all false, false and misinformed news” regarding Rekabi’s departure on Tuesday. But instead of posting a photo of her from the Seoul competition, he posted an image of her wearing a headscarf in a previous competition in Moscow, where she had won a bronze medal.
Rekabi did not wear the hijab during Sunday’s final at the Asian Championship of the International Sports Climbing Federation, according to the Seoul-based Korea Alpine Federation, the organizer of the event.
Federation officials said Rekabi wore a hijab during her first appearances at the week-long climbing event. He only wore a black headband when he competed on Sundays, his dark hair pulled back into a ponytail; he had a white shirt with the flag of Iran as a logo.
The next Instagram post, written in the first person, offered an apology on behalf of Rekabi. The post blamed a sudden call for her to climb the wall in competition, although footage from the competition showed Rekabi relaxed as she approached and after competing. She also tried to describe her return trip to Iran on Tuesday as “planned”.
Rekabi was part of the 11-member Iranian delegation, consisting of eight athletes and three coaches, to the event, according to the federation.
Federation officials said they were initially unaware of Rekabi’s competition without the hijab, but looked into the case after receiving questions about her. They said the event has no rules for requiring athletes to wear headscarves or not. However, Iranian women who compete overseas under the Iranian flag always wear the hijab.
“Our understanding is that he is returning to Iran and we will continue to monitor the situation as it develops upon his arrival,” the International Sport Climbing Federation, which oversaw the event, said in a statement. “It is important to emphasize that the safety of athletes is paramount to us and we support all efforts to keep a valuable member of our community safe in this situation.”
The federation said it had been in contact with both Rekabi and Iranian officials, but refused to elaborate on the substance of those appeals when reached by the Associated Press. The federation also declined to discuss the Instagram post attributed to Rekabi and the claims contained therein.
Hundreds of deaths during the protests
Rekabi, 33, has been on the podium three times at the Asian Championships, earning one silver and two bronze medals for her efforts.
So far, human rights groups estimate that over 200 people have been killed in the protests and the violent crackdown on security forces that followed. Iran hasn’t offered a death toll in weeks. Demonstrations were seen in over 100 cities, according to the Human Rights Activists in Iran group. Thousands of people are believed to have been arrested.
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However, gathering information on demonstrations remains difficult. Internet access was cut off for weeks by the Iranian government. Meanwhile, authorities have arrested at least 40 journalists, according to the Journalist Protection Committee.
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 at Amini’s death and the country’s other troubles.
The Iranians have seen their life savings vanish; the country’s currency, the rial, plummets; and Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers has been torn to shreds.