The Iranian regime is targeting the “Asian Maradona” for helping spread the headscarf protests

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have called for the arrest of a beloved Iranian soccer player known as “Asian Maradona” – after he became one of the leaders of protests now spreading across the country.

Former Iran national soccer team captain li Karimi has used his online fanbase to rally support for protesters who took to the streets following the death of Mahsa Amini last week.

He was the first prominent Iranian figure to blame Iran’s Morality Police for the 22-year-old’s death – he told millions of his online followers that he believed her family’s story that she died from the injuries she sustained after being beaten for not wearing her hijab properly.

The Revolutionary Guards used live ammunition to quell protests and 71 are now dead

Since then, the former Bayern Munich striker – a legendary figure in Iran – has dedicated his social media channels to encouraging the mass uprising that has spread across the country by sharing pictures and videos.

“I am just an ordinary citizen of Iran and not after any post or position for my activism. All I care about is peace and prosperity for my people,” he said on Twitter.

He has also advised followers on how to use virtual private networks, or VPNs, to bypass an internet blackout and safely share their footage online.

Demonstrations continued in more than 80 Iranian cities over the weekend, with unconfirmed reports saying security forces were expelled from the Kurdish city of Oshnavieh in western Iran, where Amini was from.

As the Revolutionary Guards used live ammunition to quell protests, the death toll has risen to 71, including at least three children, according to human rights groups. The official toll is 35, including at least five security guards.

Widespread arrests were reported, with police in northwestern Guilan province yesterday announcing “the arrest of 739 rioters, including 60 women,” in that region alone.

Security forces have carried out a spate of arrests of activists and journalists, with the US-based media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists reporting that 11 people have been arrested since Monday. This includes Niloofar Hamedi of the reformist newspaper Sharghwho reported on Amini’s death.


Iran’s Ali Karimi and Ireland’s Ian Harte in a 2001 World Cup playoff

Yesterday, Mr Karimi warned Iranian forces not to take part in the raid. “You are the motherland’s soldiers and are here to protect the lives of our citizens – not to take them away,” he said.

Karimi’s growing profile hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Fars news agency, a mouthpiece for the Revolutionary Guards, on Friday called Karimi a “rioter” and called on Iran’s intelligence and judiciary to “negotiate with him.”

It suggests that the regime is increasingly concerned about its role as a popular opposition figure around whom a burgeoning protest movement could coalesce.

“In the tragedy of Mahsa’s death, he was a voice for the nation,” said Ben Chardehi, founder of a London-based Iranian football club. “Karimi’s enormous popularity among Iranian youth has more to do with his political views than with his outstanding sportsmanship. He never bowed to the regime.”

The footballer’s popularity dates back to the Green Movement period in Iran in 2009, when he wore a green armband during a World Cup match to show his support for protesters.

Since then he has been involved in campaigns against the regime’s policies, including a stadium ban for women.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said yesterday that Iran “must deal decisively with those who oppose the security and tranquility of the country”.

Dozens of Iraqi and Iranian Kurds demonstrated yesterday in Erbil, in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, in solidarity with Ms Amini, who was Kurdish.

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022] The Iranian regime is targeting the “Asian Maradona” for helping spread the headscarf protests

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