DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iranian authorities said Tuesday that two former members of the national soccer team arrested this month in connection with nationwide protests have been released on bail.
The announcement came hours before Iran was set to play the U.S. at the World Cup in a politically charged match that authorities are heavily promoting as they grapple with nationwide protests that are well into their third month.
Parviz Boroumand, a retired goalkeeper, was arrested nearly two weeks ago on charges of participating in protests in the capital, Tehran, and was accused of damaging property. Voria Ghafouri was arrested last week for “insulting the national soccer team and propagandizing against the government," according to state-linked media.
The judiciary announced their release Tuesday without elaborating.
After his release, Ghafouri expressed gratitude to the members of the national team, who he said had pursued his case. “I wish success for the team in its match against the U.S. I hope the national soccer team players perform their best,” he was quoted as saying by a local news website.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino said he was “delighted” that Ghafouri had been released.
“In taking this decision, I appreciate the support of the Iranian authorities, and in particular that of Hamid Sajjadi, the Iranian Minister of Sport and Youths, who I met around Iran’s match versus Wales,” Infantino said in a statement.
Ghafouri, who still plays for a local club but was not chosen to go to the World Cup, has been an outspoken critic of Iranian authorities throughout his career. He objected to a longstanding ban on women spectators at men’s soccer matches as well as Iran’s confrontational foreign policy, which has led to crippling Western sanctions.
More recently, he expressed sympathy for the family of a 22-year-old woman whose death in the custody of Iran’s morality police ignited the latest protests. He also called for an end to a violent crackdown on protests in Iran’s western Kurdistan region.
Iranian officials have not said whether Ghafouri’s activism was a factor in not choosing him for the national team.
The latest protests mark one of the biggest challenges to Iran’s ruling clerics since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought them to power. Rights groups say security forces have unleashed live ammunition and bird shot on the protesters, as well as beating and arresting them. Much of the violence has been captured on video.
At least 452 protesters have been killed and more than 18,000 detained since the start of the unrest, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that has been monitoring the protests.
Authorities have blamed the unrest on hostile foreign powers, without providing evidence. The judiciary says it has released more than 1,000 detainees in recent days.
The protesters say they are fed up after decades of social and political repression, including a strict dress code imposed on women. Young women have played a leading role in the protests, stripping off the mandatory Islamic headscarf to express their rejection of clerical rule.
Some Iranians are rooting against their own team at the World Cup, associating it with rulers they view as violent and corrupt. Others insist the national team, which includes players who have spoken out on social media in solidarity with the protests, represents the country’s people. Billboards promoting the team have sprung up across Tehran.