Afkari brothers
Undated photos of three Iranian brothers handed harsh sentences for alleged involvement in a violent incident during 2018 antigovernment protests in Shiraz, Iran. From left to right: Habib, Navid and Vahid Afkari Sangari. (VOA Persian)

WASHINGTON - U.S. President Donald Trump has urged Iran not to execute a wrestler sentenced to death for murder in connection with an anti-government protest in 2018, after Iran’s top court upheld the wrestler’s sentence despite him retracting a confession that he said was made under torture.  

In a Thursday tweet, Trump said he had heard that Tehran intended to execute Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari Sangari 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 a Monday interview with VOA Persian, a source close to Afkari’s family said the Iranian Supreme Court upheld the wrestler’s death sentence in an August 15 ruling, bringing him a step closer to potential execution. The Iranian judiciary’s Mizan news agency confirmed the Supreme Court’s decision in a Monday tweet, without specifying the ruling’s date.  

Afkari is a 27-year-old Iranian freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestler from the south-central city of Shiraz who has won medals in domestic and international competitions.

A criminal court in Fars province, of which Shiraz is the capital, had handed Afkari the death penalty for murder in the killing of a local security guard of a government water facility on August 2, 2018. The killing of Hassan Torkaman happened on the sidelines of anti-government protests in Shiraz and other cities against Iran’s worsening economic conditions, including a sharp loss in the value of the national currency.

Authorities in Shiraz had arrested Afkari and his brother, Vahid, in connection with the killing on September 17, 2018, and detained a third brother, Habib, later that year. All three have remained in detention and separated from each other in Shiraz’s Adel Abad prison.

The Fars criminal court that sentenced Navid to death also handed Vahid a 27-year prison term for allegedly being an accessory to murder.

All three brothers also have been convicted by a separate Revolutionary Court in Shiraz of multiple national security offenses for alleged involvement in the killing of Torkaman and the anti-government protests that coincided with it. That court imposed a second death sentence on Navid for “moharebeh” or “enmity against God” and 27-year prison terms on Vahid and Habib for allegedly colluding with him.

The Revolutionary Court sentences for the three brothers remain in an appeal process.

The Supreme Court’s upholding of the criminal court’s death sentence against Navid  places his fate in the hands of Iranian judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi. Navid’s lawyer, Hassan Younesi, can ask Raisi to consider suspending the death sentence under Article 477 of Iran’s Code of Criminal Procedure, under which Raisi can order the Supreme Court to overturn a verdict that he deems to be “in contravention of Sharia [Islamic law]” and issue a new one.

It is not clear if Younesi has asked or will ask Raisi to consider overturning the death sentence. There is no time limit for such a request and there has been no word on what Raisi will do.

The source who spoke to VOA said the three brothers’ convictions primarily were based on confessions extracted under torture during interrogations. The source said both Navid and Vahid told court officials they had been tortured into confessing, but their statements were ignored.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus posted a Thursday tweet saying the Trump administration joined the world in “outrage” at Iran for torturing the Afkari brothers and then sentencing Navid to death and his two brothers to decades in prison for participating in what she said were peaceful protests. “Let them go!” she wrote.

In a video message recorded by the Afkari brothers’ mother, Behieh Namjoo, and posted to social media on August 30, she lamented what she said was the torture of her three sons. 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 in audio messages recorded in prison and posted to Twitter by Iranian rights activist Alireza Roshan on August 30 and 31.

In Navid’s recording, he said a Shiraz medical examiner had looked at injuries that he sustained in prison including a broken right hand and concluded that they were caused by torture.

Vahid said interrogators had placed a plastic bag over his head, beat him with chains for hours and struck the bottom of his feet with a club.

In addition to forced confessions, VOA’s source said the lack of proper legal representation for the Afkari brothers also made their verdicts unfair. The source said Iranian authorities initially denied Navid and Vahid the lawyers of their choice, forcing them to be represented by a government appointee until they recently were allowed to pick Younesi, while Habib has had no lawyer to represent him.

Younesi also has publicly rejected one of the prosecution’s main pieces of evidence beyond the retracted confessions,

In a Monday tweet, Younesi said the evidence that had been presented at trial, namely security camera footage of the street where Torkaman had been killed, had been recorded an hour before the time of the incident rather than during or after it.

“There is not one shred of evidence in this damned case that shows I’m guilty,” Navid said in his audio recording. “But they don’t want to listen to us. I realized they are looking for a neck for their rope,” he added.

The source said the Afkari family has lost hope that the Iranian judiciary will act to absolve the three brothers of wrongdoing. “They are asking for help from the international community to prove their innocence,” the source said.

Many Iranian social media users have responded to the brothers’ plight in recent days by tweeting messages of opposition to the harsh sentences imposed on them.

This article originated in VOA’s Persian service. Click here for the original Persian version of the story.