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

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

Following the altercation with the morality police, known in Iran as Gasht-e Ershad, Reza Moradkhani, a former member of the Iranian national boxing team and boxing champion in Asia, underwent 12 hours of surgery for his injuries and is now partially paralyzed.

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

>> Read more from The Observers: Inside Iran’s ‘morality police’: Women use smartphones to fight back

“Suddenly the officer pulled out his pepper spray and gassed my husband”

Arefi recounted the incident to Shargh, a popular reformist daily in Iran, on June 11.

We were walking through Pardisan Park, and suddenly a vice squad van pulled up beside us and a female officer said to me, “What’s your ID number?” We want to check if you have a history of moral offence.

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, there is no need for an identification number. My husband was offended and asked, “What do you mean if my wife has a criminal record?

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

To avoid any trouble – especially because our one-year-old daughter was with us – we apologized, but the 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 at all, then we heard a gunshot. Then the officer continued to shoot while the other shouted, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot!” But the officer didn’t listen at all.

Toomaj, an Iranian rapper, wrote on Twitter: “A month ago, morality cops shot Reza, a boxing champion who was defending his wife. Now they are setting it up to end the process.

The couple reported that after the incident, the police officer confiscated the cell phones of all nearby witnesses, deleting photos and videos of the shooting, even factory resetting several phones to delete all of their data. A single 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 officer. Photo published on June 11. © Observers

After the shooting, victims say Gasht-e Ershad officials, including the commander-in-chief, personally apologized to them and said their bills would be taken care of.

But the couple learned that police had filed charges against them for resisting arrest and failing to follow Islamic dress code, justifying their response. Arefi denied police claims that she had been exposed and was wearing a short-sleeved shirt.

In Iran, it is a crime for women not to wear a headscarf according to Islamic Sharia. The Gasht-e Ershad Vice Police are responsible for strictly enforcing the dress code. Arefi faces a two-month prison sentence and 74 lashes, according to the family lawyer.

However, she maintains that witnesses in the park, ambulance staff, and doctors and nurses at the hospital can attest that she was dressed properly on April 28.

Moradkhani was also charged with attempting to take the officer’s pepper spray canister, a charge that could land him one to three years in prison.

The boxing champ told Shargh:

I earn my living through boxing. Now I can’t fight or train for at least a year because of my physical situation. All we want is justice, and for the police to come to terms with the truth and give this officer the maximum legal sentence.

This is not the first time that the Iranian morality police have been accused of brutality and excessive force. Citizen journalists captured incidents involving Gasht-e-Ershad and made them public.

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

>> Read more about The Observers: Women boldly protest the hijab law in the streets of Iran

Since the hijab was made compulsory for women following the 1978-1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, some women have pushed back. Activists and ordinary women have attempted to defy the law through protests or by wearing outfits that push the boundaries of the Islamic republic’s dress codes.

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, is sentenced to more than nine years in prison on the same charges.

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