An Iranian climber who caused a sensation by competing abroad without a hijab was given a hero's welcome on her return to Tehran Wednesday by supporters who raucously applauded her action.
With Iran still shaken by women-led protests over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini one month ago, after her arrest for allegedly violating the country's strict dress code for women, Elnaz Rekabi returned following the competition in South Korea.
In an Instagram post and comments at the airport, Rekabi has apologised over what happened and insisted her hijab headscarf – which all Iranian women, including athletes, must wear – had accidentally slipped off.
But activists fear her comments were made under pressure from Iranian authorities.
"Elnaz is a hero" and "Well done Elnaz!" chanted dozens of supporters who gathered outside the Imam Khomeini International Airport terminal, clapping their hands and brandishing mobile phones to record the moment.
Some of the women present were themselves not wearing a hijab.
"A hero's welcome – including by women without the forced hijab – outside Tehran... Concerns for her safety remain," said the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
Rekabi, 33, her hair covered with a baseball cap and a hoodie although not a headscarf, was greeted by family members inside the airport terminal.
She then addressed state media, with a mask pulled down on her face.
"Due to the atmosphere prevailing in the finals of the competition and the unexpected call for me to start my run, I got tangled with my technical equipment and... that caused me to remain unaware of the hijab that I should have observed," she said.
"I returned to Iran peacefully, in perfect health and according to the predetermined plan. I apologise to the people of Iran because of the tensions created," she said, adding she had "no plan to say goodbye to the national team".
Her comments were similar to those made on Tuesday in an Instagram post, in which she apologised for "concerns" caused.
She was later photographed – still wearing a cap and hoodie – standing alongside Sports Minister Hamid Sajjadi, with whom she discussed "her future in sports and arranged plans, including participation and success in the Paris Olympics", a ministry statement said.
Activists have repeatedly accused the Islamic republic of coercing people into making statements of contrition on television or social media.
British actress of Iranian origin Nazanin Boniadi, an ambassador for Amnesty International in the UK, tweeted that it was clear Rekabi had been "forced to make this statement by authorities that constantly use forced and televised confessions."
Observers "should not be swayed by state propaganda", the CHRI said.
Prominent exiled Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari described Rekabi's comments as a "forced confession".
"You can see the fear in her eyes. She's just repeating what she's been told," he said.
Unconfirmed reports had already suggested Rekabi had been pressured by Iranian officials in South Korea.
BBC Persian quoted an unidentified source as saying friends had been unable to contact her, and the team had left their hotel in Seoul on Monday, two days before their scheduled departure.
News website Iran Wire said the head of Iran's climbing federation had "tricked" Rekabi into entering the Iranian embassy in Seoul, promising her safe passage to Iran if she handed over her phone and passport.
The Iranian embassy in Seoul issued a statement to AFP denying "all the fake, false news and disinformation regarding" Rekabi's situation.
The incident took place at the Asian Championships in sports climbing in Seoul on Sunday.
In the initial bouldering discipline, Rekabi's head was covered with a bandana but in a later event she wore only a headband, the stream posted by the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) showed.
The IFSC said in a statement that it had been in contact with Rekabi and the Iranian Climbing Federation and fully support "the rights of athletes, their choices, and expression of free speech".
The United States warned Tehran that "the world and the Iranian people will be watching how she (Rekabi) is treated."
Also Wednesday, Tehran blacklisted several British individuals and institutions, including BBC Persian.
The move came after London sanctioned Iran's morality police, in whose custody Mahsa Amini died last month.
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