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Iranian Climbers Arrested Amid Protest Crackdown

Hesam Mousavi, a prominent rock climbing and highline instructor, was among the detainees. Climbing spoke with his ex-girlfriend, Nazanin Roshanshah, to get a better understanding of the situation.

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Last December, Iranian authorities arrested at least five athletes, including several climbers, from the southern city of Shiraz. Their arrest came amid the widespread anti-regime protests, which have been ongoing since September 16, 2022. 

Hesam Mousavi, a prominent rock climbing and highline instructor, was among the detainees. Others arrested were Eshragh Najaf Abadi, a former member of Iran’s national cycling and mountain climbing teams; Amirarsalan Mahdavi, a rock climber and snowboarding coach; and Mohammad Khiveh, a mountaineer. According to Iranwire and the Center for Human Rights in Iran, other climbers from Shiraz have since been arrested, including Marjan Jangjou, Hamid Ghashghaei, and Hamed Qashqaei.

The Tasnim News Agency (TNA)—which has links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, officially declared a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Parliament—released footage on December 13 showing the Shiraz detainees taped to chairs, a dark gray background behind them. All of them confessed to playing various roles in a planned bomb attack, which was allegedly foiled by a state intelligence organization.

A source told BBC Persian “The forced confessions were made under torture” and added that it was to deter athlete participation in the protests. This has been a consistent trend since the beginning of the anti-regime moment—countless other news organizations have covered the prevalence of forced confessions in Iran. In November 2022, the U.S. sanctioned six senior officials with Iran’s state-run media due to their role in broadcasting hundreds of forced confessions.

One of the arrested, Dena Sheibani, says to the camera: “We gathered at a friend’s house during the first days of the protest. The plan was to explode a bomb somewhere in the city. We aimed to spark unrest by detonating the bomb remotely, and we never thought we would get arrested. We believed we were safe and could escape”  (translated by Kayhan Life).

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The Cost of Climbing

Roshanshah met Mousavi six years ago during an outdoor climbing workshop, after which she booked a private lesson with him. She recalls her fear of heights, but he was patient, intrepid, and endlessly reassuring. “Just so positive!” Roshanshah tells Climbing in a video chat, pausing for a moment to consider the memory. It was the moment they began to fall in love. They were together for years, until Roshanshah immigrated from Iran to Canada. 

“I felt I couldn’t make my life in Iran,” says Roshanshah. “It’s impossible. I don’t want to say it’s hard. It’s impossible.”

Women in Iran face daily restrictions, harassment, and condemnation.The anti-regime movement has yet to turn the tide, but it’s nearing a critical tipping point. While prompted by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in custody after being arrested for allegedly improperly wearing her hijab, the protesters are demanding so much more than a free dress code—they want wide-spread reform. 

“Sentence after sentence, ruling after ruling are imposed on our bodies in terms of our dress,” says Nasrin Sotoudeh, a leading human rights lawyer, in an interview with Time. “And not only that, but rape and other transgressions. They hit you and hurt you and bruise you, and wrap you up in the veil once again that conceals the harm that’s inflicted on you.”

Climbers face restrictions in the gym, too. Currently, female climbers cannot share the gym with male climbers; they must train during separate, limited time slots while adhering to strict dress codes. Roshanshah has hopes for a future without those limitations. Plus, in a reformed Iran, climbers would have, among other things, easier access to gear.

“Buying climbing shoes costs around the total income of one person for one month,” says Roshanshah. “So it’s very expensive. For a lot of people, it’s almost impossible. When I was in Iran, I never had climbing shoes. I climbed for about like six years, but I couldn’t afford to buy a pair.” 

Although they got engaged, Roshanshah left Iran in 2019. Mousavi floated the idea of going with her, but in the end he couldn’t bring himself to leave.

“He always told me Iran is a good place,” says Roshanshah. “He said, ‘I love my motherland.’ And he believes that it’s not that bad … I was telling him that there are too many restrictions. He said, ‘You should be positive.’ He did a lot of things in [climbing and slacklining], but you know… Now we see what happened to him.”

Mousavi’s love for his community is irrefutable. He, alongside friends, started the Shiraz public climbing gym. Later, he began a private climbing gym, the HCC. Mousavi served as the chief route setter at Iran’s National Mountaineering competitions. He helped coach a gold medalist paraclimber. He donated his time to students who otherwise couldn’t afford lessons, despite his own sometimes-challenging financial situation. He was tirelessly devoted to helping others enter the sport.

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The Arrest

Roshanshah first heard about Mousavi’s December arrest from close friends. “At first, I didn’t believe it,” she says. “But then I saw it in the news and I asked some close friends. They all confirmed it, but it took me a few days to accept.” She cried at first, devastated, but later created an Instagram page asking followers to speak openly about the arrested and let the Islamic Republic know that actions against detainees would not go unnoticed.

“Hesam is the kind of person that you know too much about,” says Roshanshah, a smile spreading across her face. “When you walk with him, he’s always telling you not to step on flowers… He won’t kill cockroaches but instead carries them to the garden… He once offered his liver to a little girl he knew who needed one.” 

Speaking of some of the other climbers arrested, Roshanshah adds that all who knew them were shocked to learn of their detention. “They are the last people who would relate to these things. Most of the time they are out in nature, in the mountains, and they are very far from society, and politics…”

Despite the confessions to the planned bomb attack, there have been conflicting reports about why the athletes were actually arrested. Videos published by state media have acknowledged that, “We didn’t have a bombing. No explosives or TNT were seen.” According to Iran International, this statement directly contradicts an earlier report saying the authorities had arrested someone carrying “a bag of explosives with strong destruction power” who was planning to set it off in Shiraz’s Ma’aliabad neighborhood.

Another inconsistency, says Roshanshah, is that Mousavi hadn’t even been living in Shiraz for several months leading up to his arrest. 

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Raise Your Voice

According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), at least 519 protesters have been killed and over 19,291 people have been arrested. This past Saturday, two protestors were hanged following “unfair trials based on forced confessions,” according to the UN human rights office. HRANA estimates four prisoners have now been executed, and 111 are likely to follow. 

On January 10, Volker Türk, the current United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, issued a statement saying that the death penalty was being weaponized to deter protestors, adding that the executions amounted to “state-sanctioned killing.” Those still in prison are in grave danger. As far as Roshanshah knows, Mousavi has not had access to a lawyer. According to one of Roshanshah friends, he is in urgent need of hospital care and needs abdominal hernia surgery. Adds the source, “his vision is in trouble.”

Despite the executions and the regime crackdown, resentment toward the Ayatollah is at an all-time high. “[Now] we have the internet and we have social media,” says Roshanshah. “People in Iran are watching the human rights in other countries, and they’re comparing. Now they know: our rights are not the same as in the other countries. People have the right to choose their own religion, lifestyle, and clothes. Why shouldn’t we have that?”

To support Hesam Mousavi, the other arrested athletes, and the movement at large, sign this petition. Also check out the Instagram page Roshanshah created. Consider making a video and tagging the page. 

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