Social media shows Iran water polo players fail to sing anthem, seen as support for protests

  • Deputy minister says athletes apologised for actions
  • Athletes fail to sing national anthem
  • Pro-government Iranians call for tough action

DUBAI, Nov 9 (Reuters) - Video clips that purportedly show Iran's water polo team failing to sing the national anthem at a competition in Thailand have appeared on social media in what the anti-government protest movement sees as the latest show of solidarity from athletes.

The video was shared online by many ordinary Iranian Twitter users. It showed the men's team not singing as the Iranian national anthem played at an Asian Championship match against India in Bangkok on Tuesday.

Reuters could not verify the video clips and the Iranian Federation of Swimming, Diving and Waterpolo was not available for comment.

Iran's deputy sports minister, Maryam Kazemipour, said on Wednesday some Iranian female athletes have acted against Islamic norms and then apologized for their actions, the state news agency reported.

Social media users saw the refusal to sing as a show of support for the eight-week-old protests, one of the biggest challenges to Iran's clerical leaders since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

"One of the most radical acts by the Iranian national water polo team. We know sport teams that have sided with the people and we appreciate your support," said one unverified Twitter user.

Anti-government demonstrations erupted in September after the death of a Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, who had been detained by morality police for allegedly flouting the Islamic Republic's strict dress code imposed on women.

The protests quickly turned into a popular revolt, with people ranging from students to doctors to lawyers to workers to athletes taking part.

The Basij militia and other security forces have cracked down hard on the unrest but protesters are sticking to their demand for an end to hardline Islamist rule under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

On Wednesday, shopkeepers in some Kurdish cities went on strike to show their respect for dozens of people who were killed in the town of Zahedan on Sept. 30, Kurdish rights group Hengaw said.

Amnesty International said security forces killed at least 66 people there. Authorities in Zahedan sacked the police chief and the head of a police station near where the killings took place.

Shopkeepers in the market town of Valiasr in Tehran province also closed their businesses to mark the 40th day since the killings took place, according to HRANA news agency.

SUPPORT FOR ATHLETES

The water polo team's behaviour was not the first time that Iranian sports people have taken actions seen as gestures of support for the protests.

Last week, national beach soccer team players refused to sing Iran's anthem at the beginning of a match against the United Arab Emirates in Dubai, according to a widely followed activist Twitter account known as 1500TASVIR.

Then on Sunday, the players did not cheer or celebrate after defeating Brazil to win the championship, the account said.

One Iranian player celebrated his goal by pretending to cut his hair, a gesture of protest by Iranian women, who have been at the forefront of the protests.

The Iranian beach football federation said on Monday the players' actions were "unwise".

Another Twitter user, identified on the site as Mehdi Andarziyan, a student, chided authorities for not quickly stamping out dissent, saying:

"Mr Minister of Sports, if you had slapped the beach soccer players, the water polo players would not have disrespected the anthem of the Islamic Republic!"

On Sunday, skater Niloufar Mardani performed without a headscarf in a competition in Turkey. She later published a video shared on Telegram accounts, which Reuters could not verify, that show her apologising.

The footage explains that she participated independently in Turkey in the skating tournament and that she did not see that her veil had fallen off when she took off her helmet

Mardani said her story was manipulated by "foreign media".

Iran's sports ministry said Mardani did not get its authorization to participate in the event in Turkey. It criticized her action and said has not been part of the national team since last month.

The activist HRANA news agency said 321 protesters had been killed in the unrest as of Monday, including 50 children. State media said last month that more than 46 members of the security forces had been killed.

Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Robert Birsel and Angus MacSwan

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