According to Iranian pro-reform media, a number of climbers and outdoor athletes has been arrested and imprisoned in the city of Shiraz in south-central Iran amid the ongoing anti-regime protests. A group of five detainees is reportedly accused of conspiring to a bombing plot. The prisoners appear to have been forced to make false confessions, which were broadcast on state television on 13 December. Sources and activists fear that the group could face sham trials and executions.
'Tasnim [state news agency] has released only the first names of these people and their identities have not been officially confirmed, but given the similarity of these five names to five mountaineering and rock climbers arrested in Shiraz, it seems that the same five people can be seen in the videos. Dena Sheibani, Mohammad Kheiveh, Ishraq Najaf Abadi, Amir Arsalan Mahdavi and Hesam Mousavi are five of the arrested athletes whose names match the names of the five accused in the video and were arrested in October.'
A source close to the group told UKC that since their arrests, the detainees have been kept in solitary confinement and prevented from telling their families where they are being held.
'Their right to access a lawyer was violated, and we do not have clear information about their situation, courts, accusations, and convictions,' they said.
The source raised concerns about their court process - in a country where forced confessions and sham trials with no due process are common - and the possibility of receiving harsh sentences at a time when the Iranian regime has executed two prisoners in relation to ongoing protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody. At least 458 people are reported to have been killed in the protests to date.
'We ask international communities to condemn these forced confessions, false accusations, the violation of the rights of our friends, their isolation, torture and lack of access to lawyers,' the source appealed.
Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, director of Norway-based NGO Iran Human Rights, denounced the recent execution of 23-year-old protester Majidreza Rahnavard and said that his sentencing was based on 'coerced confessions, after a grossly unfair process and a show trial.'
The Iranian government has detained thousands of protesters, and issued over a dozen death sentences to date. 'There is a serious risk of mass-execution of protesters,' Amiry-Moghaddam added, explaining that the recent executions 'must receive such a strong response as to deter the I.R. leaders from more executions' with 'serious consequences' for the regime.
Our source shared information on the five detainees in the video:
Eshragh Najaf Abadi, a climber and former member of the national mountain biking team, was arrested on 9 November while visiting a dentist in Shiraz. According to our source, he doesn't have access to a lawyer, and there is no information on his accusations.
Seyed Hesam Mousavi, a climbing instructor, was arrested on 30 November in Isfahan's Bazar and transported to Shiraz. 'He is a famous climber and has many students,' our source said. 'There is no information on where he is being held, and his right to access a lawyer has been violated.'
Mohammad Kheiveh, a mountaineer, was arrested on 1 November in the city of Yasouj by intelligence forces before being taken to the Shiraz intelligence office.
Dena Sheibani is a snowboard instructor and was arrested on 9 November in the city of Qeshm by armed forces while she was in a taxi, before being moved to Shiraz. 'Under pressure, she was forced into confessions and accusations,' the source said. 'So far, she has had a few court sessions without a lawyer or any of her family members who have the right to attend the court sessions. Her family was informed that she would have her final court session again soon without a lawyer. No information about the nature of her accusations and where she is being held has been shared.'
According to the source, the bomb plot was made up by the authorities following the arrest of fellow climber and friend of the group, Amir Arsalan Mahdavi. On the same day that a terrorist attack occurred in Shiraz (26 October), Mahdavi was reportedly arrested while carrying some handmade fireworks at a protest.
'[These fireworks] are very commonly used during Chaharshanbe Suri (the Iranian festival of the fire dance) in Iran and are nothing even close to resembling a bomb,' our source said. In the following weeks, intelligence forces arrested Mahdavi's friends - who had discussed his protest in a group chat - and apparently fabricated a plot, first accusing them of being responsible for the terrorist attack, but later accusing them of planning to set off a bomb in Shiraz.
'Our friends are under pressure as they have been told that they are accused of waging war against god, for which the verdict can be execution,' the source said. 'But so far, we have had no way to confirm what is happening as they haven't been allowed to have a lawyer.'
The families of the accused are appealing for support to bring the situation to the attention of the international media and governments, according to our source:
'The best thing we can do - and what we have to do - is to go on social media and make this news, because then people will see how the regime is going to execute their own athletes, coaches, route setters coaches, national team members.'
In 2020, authorities in Shiraz executed wrestler Navid Afkari, in what Amnesty International called a "travesty of justice". Afkari was accused of murdering a security guard during anti-regime protests in 2018 and claimed to have been tortured into making a confession.
The group's arrest appears to be part of a wider ongoing clampdown on climbers and adventure enthusiasts living in Shiraz, a city surrounded by hills and mountains and home to a large outdoor sport community.
'The people in Shiraz are well-known for how open-minded they are,' our source said. 'There are lots of climbing areas near the town, and a ski resort about an hour away.'
Iran International and IranWire report that Isa Anwari, a mountaineering instructor and tourism activist, was arrested by security forces in Yasouj city - along with Mohammad Kheiveh, who appeared in the confession video - and transferred to the Shiraz intelligence office. The family have not been informed of his charges or fate.
The pro-reform news websites also report that rock climber Siamak Simkanpur was arrested by security forces and transferred to the intelligence office following a series of arrests of rock climbers at his workplace on 11 October in Shiraz. He was reportedly pressured to make a forced confession and his family have been warned not to talk publicly about his arrest.
Our source highlighted the regime's focus on targeting young, often high-profile sports personalities or sports leaders to deter protesters:
'These guys are are trying to find athletes - most of whom are climbers and people who love nature. They are trying to to find those people and make up a big story about them.'
In October, Iranian competition climber Elnaz Rekabi removed her hijab during the finals of the IFSC Asian Continental Championships in Seoul in what was widely perceived as a protest (UKC News). She later apologised in what was subsequently reported to be a forced confession, and was placed under house arrest. A video shared in recent weeks showing the destruction of Rekabi's brother's house is believed to predate Rekabi's protest, according to information from sources.
In response to the ongoing brutality against protesters and arrests, one Iranian climber is reported to have left the national team.