British Columbia

Canadian athletes join campaign to save wrestler from execution in Iran

Navid Afkari was arrested after joining an anti-government rally in his home country of Iran. Supporters say he was tortured into making a false murder confession.

Navid Afkari was arrested in 2018 after participating in an anti-government protest in his home country

Protesters gather at the main gate of the Old Grand Bazaar, in Tehran, Iran on June 25, 2018. (AP)

Athletes in Canada are joining an international social media campaign aimed at saving the life of an Iranian wrestling champion who is sentenced to be executed on Wednesday.

Navid Afkari is well known in Iran, but many believe his popularity is being used by the Iranian regime to frighten others from speaking out for human rights. 

The 27-year-old was arrested for participating in a peaceful anti-government protest in 2018. Afkari, his family and lawyer claim he was tortured while incarcerated into confessing to a murder he did not commit.

On Twitter, Canadian Olympic wrestling champion Erica Wiebe posted a story about Afkari from an Iranian human rights website.

Wiebe doesn't know him, but says in the international wrestling community there are only a few degrees of separation.

"Wrestling is a truly global sport and I've been very fortunate to have many friends who were born in Iran or competed for Iran," Wiebe told CBC. "When I hear the news of what's happened to Navid Afkari, it breaks my heart."

Canadian Olympic weightlifting champion Christine Girard also joined the #SaveNavidAfkari campaign, retweeting a demand that Iran immediately grant him a reprieve. 

"Navid is being executed because, as a champion wrestler, he has a platform," Girard told CBC. "Athletes should not be intimidated into silence and they have the right to use their platform to peacefully advocate for issues that are important to them. 

Girard and Wiebe are two of hundreds of prominent athletes and politicians bringing profile to Afkari's plight. 

The World Players Association and its 85,000 members says global sporting bodies such as the International Olympic Committee and FIFA should use their leverage to pressure Iran on behalf of Afkari.

Even U.S. President Donald Trump and the UFC's Dana White have taken to Twitter to call for a stay of execution. 

Wiebe says in the era of social media and Black Lives Matter, athletes realize they have a platform, and are starting to speak up for what they believe in.

"We're definitely seeing a lot of athletes fighting for the right to speak out," she said. "I'm not sure what change we can truly effect, but we can try."

"If my tweet or signing of a petition has the possibility to help, even in a small way, I feel that it is my responsibility to lend my voice," said Girard.