A female Iranian climber who competed in a South Korean championship without a hijab has reportedly gone missing and is expected to be placed under arrest upon her return to the Islamic Republic.
Elnaz Rekabi, who went viral for competing without the Islamic headscarf at the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s Asian Championships in Seoul on Sunday, has not been heard from.
Her friends told the BBC’s Persian service, which has extensive contacts within Iran despite being banned from operating there, that they had been unable to contact Rekabi. The outlet quoted an unnamed “informed source” who said Iranian officials seized both Rekabi’s phone and passport.
BBC Persian also reported that Rekabi was to be arrested upon her return to the Islamic Republic.
A later Instagram post on an account attributed to Rekabi said not wearing a hijab was “unintentional,” though it wasn’t immediately clear whether she wrote the post or what condition she was in at the time.
The Iranian government routinely pressures activists at home and abroad, often airing what rights group describe as coerced confessions on state television, according to the Associated Press.
Rekabi, 33, didn’t put on a hijab during Sunday’s final at the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s Asia Championship, according to the Seoul-based Korea Alpine Federation, the organizers of the event. Federation officials said Rekabi wore a hijab during her initial appearances at the one-week climbing event.
She wore just a black headband when competing Sunday, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail; she had a white jersey with Iran’s flag as a logo on it. The video of Rekabi competing without the headscarf went viral as protests sparked by the September in-custody death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman detained by the country’s morality police for wearing the hijab too loosely, have entered a fifth week in more than 100 Iranian cities.
Rekabi left Seoul on a Tuesday morning flight, the Iranian Embassy in South Korea said. Her departure was initially scheduled for Wednesday, but the flight was moved up.
In a tweet, the Iranian Embassy in Seoul denied “all the fake, false news and disinformation” regarding Rekabi’s departure. But instead of posting a photo of her from the Seoul competition, it posted an image of her wearing a headscarf at a previous competition in Moscow, where she took a bronze medal.
IranWire, another website focusing on the country founded by Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari who once was detained by Iran, reported that Rekabi was somehow tricked by Reza Zarei, the head of Iran’s Climbing Federation, to enter the Iranian embassy in Seoul and hand over her passport and phone in exchange for her guaranteed safe return to Iran.
According to the outlet, Zarei was instructed to do so by Mohammad Khosravivafa, Iran’s Olympic Committee chairman. Khosravivafa had been ordered by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to move Rekabi into the embassy. The quick flight was reportedly to avoid protesters gathering outside the embassy in South Korea.
IranWire reported that once Rekabi arrived at Imam Khomeini international airport, she was to be immediately transferred to Tehran’s Evin Prison. The prison was the site of a massive fire that killed at least eight prisoners.
Rekabi reportedly made the decision to compete without the hijab about a month ago but did not opt to seek asylum in South Korea because her husband is back in Iran and she, therefore, wanted to be able to return to her home country after the competition.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.