By Artemis Moshtaghian, CNN
Iranian soccer great Ali Karimi has alleged that death threats have been made against him, while his family and close friends have been intimidated and harassed by the Iranian government following his support of ongoing protests in the country.
Known as the ‘Asian Maradona,” the 44-year-old Karimi, who retired from playing in 2014, has been a longstanding critic of the Iranian government, and since the onset of protests in Iran in mid-September has openly supported demonstrators who have taken to the streets to voice their grievances with the regime.
The government has described him as one of the “main leaders” of the recent protests in Iran, having issued a warrant for his arrest in early October charging him with “harmonizing with the enemy” and “encouraging riots”, according to Iran’s Supreme Council of the Judiciary. Both of those charges are punishable by death.
In a hour-long sit-down interview with Iranian-American comedian Max Amini, posted on the soccer great’s YouTube channel, Karimi lays bare the death threats he says have been made against him, and the intimidation and threats he says his family and close friends have endured since before the outbreak of protests in Iran following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on September 16.
During the frequent government induced internet blackouts in Iran, Karimi informed protesters on his social media accounts on how they could bypass internet restrictions using VPN and other workarounds.
In retaliation, the government briefly seized his home and belongings but later released them.
The footballer says he initially started receiving threats from the Iranian government through his family members who relayed ominous messages like “the verdict to kill Ali (with a bullet) has been issued and we can carry out the verdict at any time.”
Karimi alleges that the regime had set up a plot for him to return to Iran under the pretext that Iranian dissident group Mujahideen-e-Khalq, better known as MeK or People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, and Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad are planning on assassinating him and blaming the Islamic Republic of Iran.
People connected with the government told Karimi, “What we can do for you is for you to come back to Iran, which is a much safer place for you,” the 44-year-old says in the interview.
Until nearly four months ago Karimi and his family resided in Iran but then left for Dubai. That’s when the frequency of threats appeared to increase, says the soccer great.
People he believed to be agents of the regime would frequently contact and threaten not only his family but some of his closest friends, Karimi says.
As protests in Iran started gaining momentum, Karimi says people from the regime would periodically call him and criticize his social media posts which were in favor of the youth standing up against the government.
“I would put a post on social media, I would put a story on social media they would call me, this story is so and so this post is so and you will create discord, these kinds of things,” Karimi says.
Government representatives allegedly contacted Karimi saying that when detained youth were interrogated and asked why they were rioting, they would say they were driven by the footballer’s social media posts.
Karimi notes that the threats made against him, his family and friends are incomparable to the dangers that protesters in Iran are facing.
“A lot of our youth on the streets in Iran, they fight against batons, against bullets … pellet guns, shotgun bullets … and we see that even up to now, a lot of them unfortunately have been killed,” he says.
Human rights activists group Iran Human Rights say at least 448 people — including 60 children and 29 women — have been killed in the unrest surrounding the protests.
In the last week alone, “more than 16 people were killed by repressive forces in Iran. Of those, 12 were killed in Kurdish areas,” the group added.
CNN cannot independently verify the death toll reported by Iran Human Rights — a precise figure is impossible for anyone outside the Iranian government to confirm — and different estimates have been given by opposition groups, international rights organizations and local journalists.
Due to security concerns in the United Arab Emirates, the football legend and his family recently fled to an undisclosed location from where he conducted the interview.
Karimi says at the start of the protests he didn’t have strength to post on social media because of all of the sad news he would see of families mourning the loss of their loved ones who had been killed in protests.
But he would read encouraging comments under his posts, comments like “Don’t leave us” and “Our hope lies is in you and the likes of you.”
“Sometimes, some things give a kind of energy to people and perhaps I say it again, If it wasn’t for those loving and encouraging words and posts and commentsv…” Karimi says, choking up.
“Reading those comments and posts gave me the courage to become active [on social media] again.”
The Iranian government has not responded to the claims made in Karimi’s interview. CNN has reached out to the authorities in Tehran for comment.
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