SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – An Iranian female competitive climber left South Korea on Tuesday after participating in an event in which she climbed without her country’s mandatory headscarf, authorities said. Farsi-language media outside Iran warned that she may be forced by Iranian officials to leave early and could be arrested at home, which Tehran quickly denied.
The decision of Elnaz Rekabi, a multiple medalist in competitions, to forgo the headscarf or hijab came after protests sparked by the September 16 death in custody of a 22-year-old woman entered its fifth week. Mahsa Amini was detained by the country’s vice squad for her clothing.
The demonstrations, which lure school-age children, oil workers and others to the streets, pose the biggest challenge to Iran’s theocracy since the mass protests surrounding the controversial 2009 presidential election.
Rekabi left Seoul on a Tuesday morning flight, the Iranian embassy in South Korea said. The BBC’s Persian service, which has extensive contacts within Iran despite not being allowed to operate there, quoted an unnamed “informed source” as describing Iranian officials confiscated both Rekabi’s cell phone and passport.
BBC Persian also said she was initially scheduled to return on Wednesday, but her flight had apparently been postponed unexpectedly.
IranWire, another website focused on the country founded by Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari who was once held by Iran, claimed that Rekabi would be transferred to Tehran’s infamous Evin Prison immediately upon arrival in the country. Evin Prison was the site of a massive fire this weekend that killed at least eight inmates.
In a tweet, the Iranian embassy in Seoul denied “all fake news, false news and misinformation” regarding Rekabi’s departure on Tuesday. But instead of posting a photo of her from the Seoul match, an image was posted of her wearing a headscarf at an earlier match in Moscow, where she also won a bronze medal.
Calls to the Iranian embassy in Seoul went unanswered on Tuesday.
According to the Seoul-based Korea Alpine Federation, the organizers of the event, Rekabi did not wear a hijab during Sunday’s final at the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s Asia Championship.
Federation officials said Rekabi wore a hijab during her first appearances at the week-long climbing event. According to the federation, Rekabi was a member of the 11-member Iranian delegation, which consists of eight athletes and three coaches.
Federation officials said they were initially unaware of Rekabi participating without the hijab, but were investigating the matter after receiving information about her. They said the event has no rules about whether or not female athletes wear a headscarf. However, Iranian women who fight abroad under the Iranian flag always wear the hijab.
South Korea’s Justice Ministry declined to confirm whether the Iranian athlete is still in South Korea or has left the country, citing privacy-related regulations. The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had no comments on the matter.
33-year-old Rekabi has finished on the podium three times at the Asian Championships, winning one silver and two bronze medals for her efforts.
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers John Marshall in Phoenix and Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul contributed to this report.
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