An Iranian climber, who did not wear a hijab during an international competition in South Korea, has returned to Iran as Iranian groups based abroad have raised alarm over her plight at home.
Elnaz Rekabi, 33, competed without a hijab at the International Sport Climbing Federation Asian Championships in Seoul on Sunday. Videos of her wearing a headband with her hair in a ponytail during the competition spread on social media.
Rekabi arrived in Tehran early Wednesday morning, state media IRNA reported. Videos posted on social media show her arriving at the capital’s Imam Khomeini International Airport. She was also seen speaking to the media.
Other videos posted on social media appeared to show crowds gathering inside and outside the airport, chanting “Elnaz the hero”.
It is unclear if Rekabi is in custody or if she will face any repercussions.
Her return to Iran comes amid nationwide protests in the country calling for more freedoms for women, following the death of a 22-year-old woman who died in police custody after being arrested for allegedly carrying her hijab inappropriately.
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In a story posted to Rekabi’s Instagram page on Tuesday, the athlete said she was called upon to climb the wall “unexpectedly”, which “unintentionally” created an issue with her hairstyle.
“Due to bad timing and an unexpected call to climb the wall, I inadvertently created an issue with my headgear,” she wrote.
“Apologizing for the concerns I have caused… currently, according to the predetermined schedule, I am returning to Iran with the team,” the IG story post said.
She reiterated that she “accidentally” competed without a jihab in an interview with state media IRNA when she arrived in Tehran on Wednesday.
“As far as this topic goes, as I’ve already explained in my social media posts, it totally happened by accident,” Rekabi said when asked by the interviewer about the incident.
“I was asked unexpectedly and I attended the competition. I kind of took care of the gear, and that made me neglect the hijab,” she continued.
Iran requires women to wear the hijab when officially representing the country abroad.
In an interview on Tuesday, ahead of the mountaineer’s return to Tehran, his brother Davoud Rekabi told the official Tasmin news agency that his sister would “always play in the national team uniform”.
“My sister had a hijab but wore a headband and unfortunately some people [took advantage] of this issue,” he said.
“My sister is an Iranian child and she will always play in the national team uniform. Elnaz belongs to this country and she will always play for this country,” he continued.
It is unclear whether his comments were made under duress.
A news site critical of the Iranian regime, IranWire, claimed that Rekabi would be transferred to prison upon his arrival, prompting concern among rights groups about what would happen to him.
Amnesty International said on Monday it was alarmed at the prospect of Rekabi’s return.
“Elnaz Rekabi should not be forcibly returned to Iran,” Amnesty said in a statement, adding that “she faces a real risk of arbitrary arrest, torture and other ill-treatment for violating the rules of wearing compulsory veil,” Amnesty wrote.
CNN cannot independently verify reports that Rekabi was forced to return to Iran.
The Iranian Embassy in Seoul said Rekabi left on Tuesday with “other team members” and “strongly denied all fake news and misinformation.”
In the Twitter post, the Embassy posted a photo of Rekabi from previous games in Russia where she competed wearing the hijab.
“It is understood that all members of the Iranian delegation, including Elnaz Rekabi, have already left Korea after attending the sporting event,” South Korea’s foreign ministry told CNN in a statement.
“The punishment has already begun,” the director of Iranian rights group Iran Human Rights, Mahmood Reza Amiry-Moghaddam, told CNN on Tuesday.
“You know, the fact that she was in solitary confinement for an entire day…and then she just wrote this message on her Instagram. So the pressure on her has already started from South Korea,” he said, “I don’t think anyone believes what the Iranian authorities are saying.”
The International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) said it was “fully aware of the news” regarding Rekabi and it “understands” that she is returning to Iran.
“There is a lot of information in the public sphere regarding Ms. Rekabi and as an organization we have tried to establish the facts. We have also been in contact with Ms. Rekabi and the Iranian Climbing Federation,” says a press release from the IFSC.
“We will continue to monitor the situation as it develops upon his arrival,” the statement said.
Calls made to two coaches of the Iranian team currently in Seoul went unanswered.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the day Rekabi was due to leave Seoul.
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