An Iranian wrestler at risk of imminent execution for a murder confession that he said was made under torture has told relatives that he and his two jailed brothers were beaten by prison guards in recent days and denied medical care for their wounds, according to a knowledgeable source.
In a Tuesday interview with VOA Persian, the source, who is close to Navid Afkari Sangari's family, said family members learned of the beatings in a brief phone call that the wrestler was permitted to make from Shiraz's Adel Abad prison on Sunday.
The 27-year-old Iranian Greco-Roman wrestler has been a local hero in his hometown of Shiraz for winning medals in domestic and international competitions. But his international profile rose last week, when news emerged that Iran upheld his death sentence. That prompted an outpouring of support for him from social media users, including U.S. President Donald Trump and the international wrestling and sporting communities.
The source said Navid Afkari told family members in the phone call that prison guards had beaten him and his brothers, Vahid and Habib, in the preceding days and then refused to let them file a complaint and seek a medical examination. "We are injured and must be sent to a forensic doctor," the source cited Navid as saying.
The source said family members also learned that the three brothers were transferred from the public ward of the Shiraz prison to other parts of the jail last Thursday, with Vahid and Habib being sent to a "guidance" ward, which typically houses juvenile offenders. Navid's exact new location in the jail was unknown. Vahid is in his mid-30s, while Habib is in his late 20s.
Iran's Supreme Court upheld Navid's death sentence last month, bringing him a step closer to potential execution. A criminal court in Fars province, of which Shiraz is the capital, had handed Navid the death penalty for murder in the killing of a local security guard at a government water facility on Aug. 2, 2018. The incident happened on the sidelines of anti-government protests in Shiraz and other cities against Iran's worsening economic conditions.
Authorities in Shiraz had arrested Navid and Vahid in connection with the killing on Sept. 17, 2018, and detained Habib later that year. Since then, the wrestler's two brothers have been sentenced to decades in prison for being alleged accomplices in the killing.
Message from mother
VOA's source said family members have made several attempts to visit the three brothers in the prison since Thursday but were denied access. The source said the men's mother, Behieh Namjoo, told prison authorities that she wanted to know if her son, Navid, was still alive, but was told in response that the last time she spoke with him, the whole world heard about his case and she would have to ask judicial authorities for permission to have further contact.
In a video message recorded by Namjoo and posted to social media on August 30, she lamented what she said was the torture of her three sons in custody. She said Vahid had attempted suicide twice in response to pressure to incriminate his two brothers.
Navid and Vahid shared their own accounts of being tortured into confessing their alleged roles in the 2018 killing in audio messages recorded in prison and posted to Twitter by Iranian rights activist Alireza Roshan on August 30 and 31.
'Political use of the judiciary'
Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, told VOA Persian that Iran's judiciary appears eager to execute several people involved in recent anti-government protests in order to show Iranians what fate could await them if they also take to the streets.
"This political use of the judiciary is highly condemnable, and we should not allow the sentence against Navid Afkari to be carried out," Ghaemi said. "We also should not allow Iran to carry out a wave of executions as it did in the 1980s."
Iranian state TV aired a report Saturday about what it said was evidence of Navid's role in the killing, including a written confession and surveillance footage from the scene. But his lawyer, Hassan Younesi, already had said in an August 31 tweet that the footage was recorded an hour before the incident and that the prosecution had presented no images of the killing itself.
Rights activists have said Iranian state TV has broadcast multiple forced confessions from political prisoners in recent years.
Tweeting again on Sunday, Younesi demanded that Iran's judiciary investigate reports that the three brothers were recently beaten and then denied medical treatment.
He later re-tweeted a Wednesday article by Iranian state-approved news site Ensaf, containing a letter from the brothers' parents to Iranian judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi. In the letter, the parents said one of their sons' most basic rights was to have a doctor examine the effect of the suspected beatings on their bodies. "Let justice be done," they wrote to Raisi.
In a September 3 tweet, Trump said he had heard that Tehran intended to execute the Iranian wrestler for the sole act of joining an anti-government street protest.
"To the leaders of Iran, I would greatly appreciate if you would spare this young man's life, and not execute him. Thank you!" Trump wrote.
In recent days, U.S. and international sporting groups have issued similar appeals. In a Tuesday statement, World Players Association Director Brendan Schwab, whose organization is part of the UNI Global Union of athletes, said an execution of the Iranian wrestler would be a "repudiation of the humanitarian values that underpin sport."
"It must result in Iran forfeiting its right to be a part of sport's universal community," Schwab added.