Iranian soccer star Ali Karimi has claimed death threats have been made against him while his family and close friends have faced intimidation and harassment by the Iranian government after he supported ongoing protests in the country.
Known as the “Asian Maradona,” Karimi, 44, who retired from football in 2014, is a longtime critic of the Iranian government and has openly supported protesters who have taken to the streets to protest their protests since protests began in Iran in mid-September to express grievances about the regime.
The government has labeled him as one of the “main leaders” of recent protests in Iran after issuing an arrest warrant for him in early October, which the Supreme Council of Iran accused him of “harmonizing with the enemy” and “fostering unrest.” became the judiciary. Both charges carry the death penalty.
In an hour-long sit-down interview with Iranian-American comedian Max Amini, posted to the soccer star’s YouTube channel, Karimi discloses the death threats he says have been made against him, as well as the intimidation and threats he has received Credit to his family and friends has held out since protests erupted in Iran following the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.
During Iran’s frequent government-caused internet outages, Karimi took to his social media accounts to update protesters on how to bypass internet restrictions using VPN and other workarounds.
In retaliation, the government briefly confiscated his home and belongings, but later released them.
The footballer says he initially received threats from the Iranian government through his family members, who shared ominous messages such as “the verdict to kill Ali (with a bullet) has been issued and we can enforce the verdict at any time.”
Karimi claims the regime was plotting to assassinate him on the pretext that the Iranian dissident group Mujahideen-e-Khalq, better known as MeK or People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, and Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency plan to assassinate him and to blame the Islamic Republic of Iran.
People linked to the government told Karimi, “What we can do for you is that you go back to Iran, which is a much safer place for you,” the 44-year-old said in the interview.
Until almost four months ago, Karimi and his family lived in Iran, but then they went to Dubai. Then the frequency of threats seems to increase, says the soccer star.
People he believed to be regime agents often contacted and threatened not only his family but also some of his closest friends, Karimi says.
As protests in Iran gathered momentum, Karimi says people within the regime would call him regularly and criticize his social media posts promoting youth rebellion against the government.
“I would post on social media, I would post a story on social media, they would call me, this story is like this, this post is like this, and you’re going to create discord, things like that,” says Karimi .
Government officials reportedly contacted Karimi and said that when jailed youths were interrogated and asked why they were rioting, they said they were driven by the footballer’s social media posts.
Karimi notes that the threats against him, his family and friends are incomparable to the dangers faced by protesters in Iran.
“Many of our youth on the streets of Iran are fighting batons, bullets…shotguns, shotgun bullets…and we see that unfortunately many of them have been killed so far,” he says.
Human rights activist group Iran Human Rights says 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 have been killed by repressive forces in Iran. Of these, 12 were killed in Kurdish areas,” the group added.
CNN cannot independently verify the death toll reported by Iran Human Rights — no one outside the Iranian government can confirm an exact figure — and varying estimates have been given by opposition groups, international human 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 which he conducted the interview.
Karimi says he didn’t have the strength to post on social media when the protests started because he would see all the sad news from families mourning loved ones who were killed in protests.
But he read encouraging comments under his posts, comments like “Don’t leave us” and “Our hope is in you and those like you.”
“Sometimes some things give people a kind of energy and maybe I’ll say it again if it weren’t for these loving and encouraging words and posts and comments…” says Karimi, choking.
“Reading these comments and posts encouraged me to take action [on social media] again.”
The Iranian government has not responded to the claims made in Karimi’s interview. CNN has reached out to Tehran authorities for comment.