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Shooting of former boxing champion highlights brutality of Iran’s ‘morality police’

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It all started as a subpoena for an improperly worn headscarf, but the incident escalated when former Iranian boxing champion Reza Moradkhani was shot four times on April 28 by Iran’s “morality police” after they interrogated his wife. The incident, in which he was seriously injured, adds to the long list of abuses by the vice squad, known for their brutal enforcement of a strict Islamic dress code.

After the altercation with the vice squad, known in Iran as the Gasht-e Ershad, Reza Moradkhani, a former member of Iran’s national boxing team and boxing champion in Asia, underwent 12-hour surgery on his injuries and is now partially paralyzed.

Moradkhani and his wife, Maria Arefi, also a boxer, filed a lawsuit against the vice squad after the shooting, saying they were advised “not to make the story public”. But in June, the court dismissed their case and the couple went to the media.

>> Read more on The Observers: Inside Iran’s “morality police” – women use their smartphones to fight back

‘Suddenly the officer took out his pepper spray and gassed my husband’

Arefi told the incident to shargha popular reformist daily in Iran, on June 11.

We were walking in Pardisan Park and suddenly a police van pulled up next to us and a female officer said to me, ‘What’s your ID number? We want to check whether you have a criminal record.”

I was shocked and told her to google my name and my husband’s name to find out who we are. We are not criminals, no ID number is needed. My husband was offended and asked, “What do you mean if my wife has a criminal record?”

Then a male police officer came out of the van and said to my husband, “Go away, it’s none of your business.” My husband replied, “She’s my wife and your officer is talking about my wife, what do you mean it’s none of my business?” […]

To avoid problems – especially since our one-year-old daughter was with us – we apologized, but the male officer insulted me. My husband asked him to be polite and suddenly the officer pulled out his pepper spray and gassed my husband.

My husband couldn’t see anything and then we heard a gunshot. Then the officer kept firing while the other yelled, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot!” But the agent didn’t listen at all.

Toomaj, an Iranian rapper, wrote on Twitter: “A month ago, vice squads shot at Reza, a boxing champion defending his wife. Now they’re setting him up to end the process.”

The couple reported that after the incident, the police officer seized cell phones from all witnesses in the area, deleted photos and videos of the shooting, and even factory reset several phones to delete all their data. Only one photo and a short clip taken after the incident have been recovered.

Reza Moradkhani sits on the ground, covered in blood and handcuffed, after being shot by a vice squad.  Photo published on June 11.
Reza Moradkhani sits on the ground, covered in blood and handcuffed, after being shot by a vice squad. Photo published on June 11. © Observers

After the shooting, the victims said officials of Gasht-e Ershad, including the chief commander, apologized to them personally and said their accounts would be settled.

But the couple learned that police had filed charges against them for resisting arrest and failing to observe proper Islamic dress codes, justifying their response. Arefi has denied the police’s claims that she was revealed wearing a short-sleeved shirt.

In Iran, it is a crime for women not to wear headscarves in accordance with Islamic Sharia. Gasht-e Ershad’s morals police are tasked with strictly enforcing the dress code. Arefi faces two months in prison and 74 lashes as punishment, the family’s lawyer said.

However, she claims witnesses at the park, paramedics and doctors and nurses at the hospital can confirm that she was wearing the correct clothes on April 28.

Moradkhani was also charged with trying to take the officer’s pepper spray can, a charge that would see him in prison for one to three years.

The boxing champion told Shargh:

I earn my living boxing. Now I can’t fight or coach for at least a year because of my physical situation. All we want is justice, and for the police to recognize the truth and impose the maximum legal penalty on this officer.

This is not the first time Iran’s vice squad has been accused of cruelty and excessive force. Citizen journalists have documented and highlighted incidents involving Gasht-e-Ershad.

In 2018, a video that went viral around the world showed the morality police attacking a young woman who she said was not wearing her hijab properly.

>> Read more on The Observers: Women are boldly protesting the hijab law on the streets of Iran

Since the hijab was deemed mandatory for women after the Islamic revolution of 1978-79 in Iran, some women have withdrawn. Activists and ordinary women have tried to break the law through protests or by wearing outfits that push the boundaries of the Islamic republic’s dress code.

In 2019, Iranian authorities sentenced Saba Kord Afshari and Yasaman Aryani to five years in prison for their activism against mandatory hijab laws. Aryani’s mother, Monireh Arabshahi, has been sentenced to more than nine years in prison on the same charges.

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