Visit by Iran’s Zarif to Germany cancelled over execution of wrestler

The German government has condemned Tehran’s killing of wrestler Navid Afkari

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks during news conference with his German counterpart Heiko Maas in Teheran, Iran, June 10, 2019. Tasnim News Agency/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE.
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A visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Germany has been abruptly cancelled amid condemnation of Tehran’s execution of a wrestler who had joined anti-government protests.

Mr Zarif had been due to meet with his counterparts from Germany, France and Britain on Monday. However, according to the German press, the meeting has been postponed because of the execution of 27-year-old Navid Afkari on Saturday.

Iran’s foreign ministry has cited “logistical problems” over the cancellation of the trip.

In a statement on Monday, the German government hit out at Tehran once again over its treatment of Afkari, who was accused of murdering a man during the unrest which gripped Iran in 2018.

“The federal government strongly condemns this execution, which was carried out despite international protests and requests for suspension,” the German foreign ministry said in a statement.

epa08663502 A undated handout photo made available 12 September 2020 by National Council of Resistance Iran (NWRI) and the Iranian Exile Society, showing Iranian champion wrestler Navid Afkari at a undisclosed location. Iran's national news agency IRNA confirmed 12 September 2020 Iran had executed Navid Afkari for a murder that he according to Iran's judicial authorities had confessed to. Many leading international organizations had protested the planned execution and asked Iran to spare Afkari's life.  EPA/NWRI HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

“There were serious doubts about the rule of law of the procedure and we also take the allegations that Navid Afkari only made a confession using torture very seriously.

“The German government has campaigned several times and at a very high diplomatic level in Tehran for the suspension of the death sentence against Navid Afkari,” it added.

In Iran, also on Monday, the country's foreign ministry summoned Germany's ambassador over tweets condemning the execution of the wrestler.

The ministry "strongly condemned" the tweets and told German envoy Hans-Udo Muzel that the reaction was considered to be an "interference in the internal affairs" of Iran, an official statement read.

It called on the German embassy to "recognise the limits of its diplomatic duties and not go beyond them."

FILE - In this June 25, 2018 file photo, a group of protesters chant slogans at the main gate of the Old Grand Bazaar, in Tehran, Iran. On Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020, Iran broadcast the televised confession of a wrestler facing the death penalty after a tweet from President Donald Trump criticizing the case, a segment that resembled hundreds of other suspected coerced confessions aired over the last decade in the Islamic Republic. The case of 27-year-old Navid Afkari has drawn the attention of a social media campaign that portrays him and his brothers as victims targeted over participating in protests against Iran's Shiite theocracy in 2018. (Iranian Labor News Agency via AP, File)

"Interference in the laws, regulations and judicial procedures of the Islamic Republic of Iran is not tolerable in any way," the statement added.

The German embassy condemned Afkari's death in a message written in Farsi posted on its official Twitter account on Sunday.

"We were deeply shocked by the execution of Navid Afkari," the message read.

"It is not acceptable that basic legal rights be ignored in order to silence opposing voices," it added.

Iranian state media on Saturday announced that Tehran had carried out the execution of the prominent wrestler in retaliation for the death of water supply company employee Hassan Torkaman in the southern city of Shiraz amid the 2018 protests.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (2L) poses for a photograph with Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (R), France's Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (C), Germany Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (2R) -- the ministers of the three European signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal - and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini (L) during a meeting in Brussels, on May 15, 2018.  
Iran's foreign minister said on May 15 that efforts to save the nuclear deal after the abrupt US withdrawal were "on the right track" as he began talks with European powers in Brussels. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Olivier Matthys

Afkari was purported to have admitted to the murder in a confession broadcast by the Iranian state television.

However, the admission was broadly interpreted as forced, likely under torture, as it resembled hundreds of grim, coerced confessions aired in the Islamic republic in recent years.

Both inside and outside of Iran, there had been calls for Afkari’s life to be spared.

US President Donald Trump called for a stay of execution for the championship wrestler

On social media, a campaign portrayed him and his brothers as victims targeted over their participation in the 2018 demonstrations, and the case revived a demand inside the country for Iran to stop carrying out the death penalty.

Imprisoned Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, herself nearly a month into a hunger strike over conditions at Tehran's Evin prison amid the coronavirus pandemic, passed word that she supported Afkari.

The EU has also condemned Iran in the wake of Saturday's execution.

"The European Union is opposed to the death penalty under all circumstances and cases with no exception," a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement.

"Human rights remain a central feature of our engagement with Iran. We will continue to engage with Iranian authorities on this issue including through the local EU representation in Tehran and also on individual cases such as this recent execution," he said.

The Iranian foreign minister’s meeting with counterparts from the three European nations was to coincide with a meeting of the UN atomic energy watchdog’s board of governors also on Monday.

The ministers from the three European nations have sought to salvage what remains of a 2015 accord in which world powers agreed to lift economic sanctions on Tehran in exchange for Iran giving up its nuclear weapons programme.

The agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has been on life support since Mr Trump withdrew the US from the deal in 2018 and began ratcheting up sanctions.

Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had in August promised closer cooperation after Tehran agreed to allow access to one of two suspected former nuclear sites.

However, the watchdog has warned Iran now has more than ten times the amount of enriched uranium permitted under an 2015 agreement with a stockpile of  2,105 kg.