Abuse of Iranian climbing champion cited in EU sanctions

Family home of athlete Elnaz Rekabi demolished after she competed without a hijab

A climbing champion who competed without a hijab was tricked into entering an Iranian embassy, flown to Tehran, interrogated, forced to publicly apologise and her family’s home demolished, according to the European Union, which imposed new sanctions on Iran on Monday.

The details of the case were entered into the EU’s official journal as the union imposed fresh asset freezes and travel bans on more than 30 Iranian officials and organisations for human rights abuses and orchestrating “brutal” crackdowns on protesters who were galvanised by the death of Mahsa Amini.

Among those sanctioned was Iran’s minister for sports and youth Hamid Sajjadi, who the EU listed as “responsible for pressuring Iran’s athletes into silence and for preventing them from speaking out internationally against repression in Iran”.

The sanction list cited the case of Elnaz Rekabi (33), who was seen competing without a headscarf in the final of the Asian championship rock climbing competition in Seoul in October.


It was perceived as an act of defiance against Iran’s decades-old mandatory hijab rules. Footage of the incident went viral against a background of protests that have swept the country following the death in custody of Ms Amini, who was arrested for wearing an insufficiently modest headscarf.

Ms Rekabi disappeared from public view following the incident and friends told media that they were unable to contact her.

A post then appeared on the climber’s Instagram page apologising “for all the concerns I have caused”, and saying that her lack of head covering had been accidental.

The EU sanctions list stated that minister Sajjadi was “personally involved” in coercing Ms Rekabi into making the apology.

“After her competition, Rekabi was tricked into entering the Iranian embassy building in Seoul, where her passport and mobile phone were confiscated on the orders of the authorities in Tehran,” the EU official journal reads.

“Upon her likely forced arrival in Tehran, she was interrogated by two of Iran’s political and sports institutions and met with Sajjadi. In this meeting, she was coerced into making a statement apologising for competing without a hijab and was threatened with the confiscation of family land,” it continued.

Later, a video of the ruins of a house with sports medals on the ground began circulating. It showed Ms Rekabi’s brother, a fellow athlete, in tears.

“In December 2022, it became clear that Elnaz Rekabi’s family home in Zanjan had been demolished,” the EU official journal states.

The semi-official Tasnim news agency reported that the Rekabi home had been demolished because it did not have a valid construction permit.

The sanctions also targeted lawmakers who have called for the execution of protesters and units of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Sunni-populated areas where the crackdowns have been particularly intense.

Police authorities were responsible for the “repression of women who do not comply with headscarf codes” and for “violence, discrimination, cruel and degrading behaviour, and arbitrary detention of women”, the official journal read.

The EU also sanctioned Ahmad Noroozi, chief executive of state-funded Press TV, which the EU said is “responsible for producing and broadcasting the forced confessions of detainees” and is “a critical tool in the Iranian government’s mass suppression and censorship campaign”.

The Iranian government announced it would impose its own sanctions in response.

“The move by the European Union and the UK regime shows their mental inability to correctly understand the realities of Iran,” foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said in a statement.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times