Iranian football great Ali Karimi has claimed that he has received death threats, while his family and close friends have been threatened and harassed by the Iranian government after supporting the country’s ongoing protests.
Known as the “Asia Maradona,” Karimi, 44, who retired from the game in 2014, has been a long-time critic of the Iranian government and has openly supported protesters since protests began in Iran in mid-September. took to the streets to express their grievances against the regime.
The government described him as one of the “main leaders” of the recent protests in Iran and issued an arrest warrant in early October on charges of “collusion with the enemy” and “inciting mass unrest.” Judiciary. Both charges are punishable by death.
In an hour-long interview with Iranian-American comedian Max Amini, published on the football great’s YouTube channel, Karimi revealed death threats against him, threats and intimidation against his family and loved ones. friends endured until protests erupted in Iran on September 16 following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Ami.
Amid frequent government blackouts in Iran, Karimi took to his social media accounts to inform protesters of how to bypass internet restrictions using VPNs and other methods.
In response, the government briefly seized his home and belongings, but later released them.
According to the footballer, he first started receiving threats from the Iranian government through his family members, who spread threatening messages such as “Ali has been sentenced to death (by firing squad) and we can carry out the sentence at any time.”
Karimi claims that the regime conspired to return him to Iran, claiming that the Iranian dissident Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MeK or People’s Mujahideen Organization of Iran) and the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad were plotting to kill him. and accusing the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“What we can do for you is to return to Iran, it’s a safe place for you,” the 44-year-old told Karimi in an interview, people with ties to the government told Karimi.
Almost four months ago, Karimi lived with his family in Iran and then went to Dubai. That’s when the frequency of threats increased, says the football player.
According to Karimi, the people he believed to be agents of the regime frequently contacted and threatened not only his family, but also some of his close friends.
As the protests in Iran began to take off, Karimi said regime officials would call him from time to time to criticize his social media posts that supported youth protests against the government.
“I’d post on social media, I’d post a story on social media where they called me, this story is so-and-so, this post is so-and-so, and you create controversy, things like that,” Karimi says.
Government officials contacted Karimi and said that when the detained youths were interrogated and asked why they were rioting, they said it was because of the footballer’s posts on social media.
Karimi noted that the threats against him, his family and friends do not compare to the threats faced by protesters in Iran.
“Many of our young people are fighting in the streets in Iran against clubs, against bullets…against grenade launchers, assault rifles…and we see so far, unfortunately, that many of them have been killed,” he says.
An Iranian human rights group said at least 448 people, including 60 children and 29 women, had been killed in the unrest surrounding the protests.
“More than 16 people were killed by repressive forces in Iran in the last week. 12 of them were killed in Kurdish areas,” the organization added.
CNN Human Rights in Iran cannot independently confirm the death toll — the exact figure cannot be confirmed by anyone other than the Iranian government — and estimates have been varied by opposition groups, international human rights organizations and local journalists.
Due to security concerns in the United Arab Emirates, the football legend and his family recently fled to an unknown location from where he gave an interview.
Karimi said that at the beginning of the protests, he was unable to post on social media due to the sad news of families mourning their loved ones who died in the protests.
But he used to read encouraging comments under his posts, such as “Don’t leave us”, “Our hope is in you and others like you”.
“Sometimes some things give people some strength, maybe, I’ll say it again, if it wasn’t for those loving, encouraging words, messages, comments…” says Karimi, choking up.
“Reading those comments and posts gave me the courage to be active [on social media] again.”
The Iranian government has yet to respond to the allegations made in Karimi’s interview. CNN has reached out to Tehran authorities for comment.