Iran has released two former members of its international football team who were arrested on charges related to countrywide protests, just hours before the national squad was set to play the US at the World Cup.

Right-back Voria Ghafouri was detained last week and accused of tarnishing “the reputation of the national team and spreading propaganda against the state”, while retired goalkeeper Parviz Boroumand was arrested nearly two weeks ago on charges of participating in rallies in the capital, Tehran.

Both were released by the judiciary on bail, according to state-linked media, in a rare concession that will be seen as an effort to placate deepening anger across the country and internationally. Hundreds of other detainees were released in recent days, state media reported, without stating the reason behind the move.

The timing of the footballers’ release ahead of Iran’s fixture spotlights the bind ruling clerics have put themselves in by attempting to stamp out with bloody force a national protest movement that has garnered support from many of the nation’s most beloved sporting and cultural icons.

Ghafouri, once a captain of the Tehran club Esteghlal, has been outspoken in his defence of Iranian Kurds, demanding the government stop its attacks in Kurdish areas when many rallies have been held. He has been an outspoken critic of Iranian authorities throughout his career, including saying he was “humiliated” that women were banned from watching men’s games.

When Iran announced its Qatar World Cup team, there was surprise that the talented 35-year-old footballer, who was a member of Iran’s 2018 World Cup squad, was not named, with some speculating it may have been because of his political views.

Recently, Ghafouri expressed sympathy for the family of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old woman whose death in the custody of Iran’s morality police ignited the latest protests that have now entered their third month.

Facing one of the boldest challenges to its hardline theocratic rule since the 1979 revolution that overthrew the western-friendly Shah of Iran, Tehran has repeatedly blamed foreign enemies for the strife and accuses “terrorists” of killing several dozen security force members.

The UN office of the high commissioner for human rights (OHCHR) has said more than 300 people have been killed so far in Iran’s crackdown, including more than 40 children.

Ghafouri’s arrest came after the Iranian team was plunged into controversy for remaining silent during the national anthem before its game against England, in a move interpreted as supportive of the protests.

Source » theguardian