A female Iranian rock climber, who did not wear a hijab at an international competition in South Korea, has returned to Iran as Iranian groups based abroad raised alarms about her fate back home.
Elnaz Rekabi, 33, competed without a hijab during the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s Asian Championships in Seoul on Sunday. Videos of her wearing a headband with her hair in a ponytail while competing spread on social media.
Rekabi arrived in Tehran early on Wednesday morning, state media IRNA reported. Videos posted to social media show her arriving at the capital’s Imam Khomeini International Airport. She was also seen speaking to the media.
More videos posted to social media appeared to show crowds gathered both inside and outside of the airport, chanting “Elnaz the hero.”
It is unclear whether Rekabi is under detention or if she will face repercussions.
Her return to Iran comes amid nationwide protests in the country calling for greater freedoms for women, following the death of a 22-year-old woman who died in police custody after her arrest for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly.
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In a story posted on Rekabi’s Instagram page on Tuesday, the athlete said she was called to climb the wall “unexpectedly” which “unintentionally” created a problem with her hair covering.
“Due to bad timing and unexpectedly being called to climb the wall, I inadvertently created a problem with my head covering,” she wrote.
“Apologizing for the worries that I caused… currently, according to the pre-determined schedule I am returning to Iran with the team,” the IG story post said.
She reiterated that she had “accidentally” competed without a jihab in an interview with state media IRNA on her arrival in Tehran on Wednesday.
“Regarding this topic, as I already explained on my social media stories – it totally happened accidentally,” Rekabi said, when asked by the interviewer about the incident.
“I was unexpectedly called upon and I attended the competition. I somehow got busy with the equipment, and it made me negligent to the hijab,” she continued.
Iran mandates women wear a hijab when officially representing the country abroad.
In an interview Tuesday, before the climber arrived back in Tehran, her brother Davoud Rekabi told state-aligned Tasmin news agency that his sister would “always play wearing the national team’s uniform.”
“My sister had a hijab but was wearing a headband and unfortunately some people [took advantage] of this issue,” he said.
“My sister is a child of Iran, and she will always play wearing the national team’s 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 website critical of the Iranian regime, IranWire, alleged that Rekabi will be transferred to prison upon arrival, prompting rights groups to worry about what would happen to her.
Amnesty International said Monday it was alarmed by the prospect of Rekabi’s return.
“Elnaz Rekabi should not be forcibly returned to Iran,” Amnesty said in a statement, adding that “she is at real risk of arbitrary arrest, torture, and other ill-treatment for violating the authorities’ compulsory auction rules,” Amnesty wrote.
CNN cannot independently verify reports of Rekabi being forced to return to Iran.
The Iranian embassy in Seoul said that Rekabi departed on Tuesday along with “other members of the team” and “strongly denied all the fake, false news and disinformation.”
In the Twitter post, the embassy posted a picture of Rekabi from previous games in Russia where she was competing wearing the hijab.
“It is understood that all members of the Iranian delegation including Elnaz Rekabi have already left Korea after attending the sport event,” South Korea’s Foreign Affairs Ministry told CNN in a statement.
“The punishment has already started,” director of Norway-based rights group Iran Human Rights Mahmood Reza Amiry-Moghaddam told CNN on Tuesday.
“You know, the fact that she was incommunicado for one full day…and then she just wrote this one message on her Instagram. So, the pressure on her started already from South Korea,” he said, “I don’t think anyone believes in what Iranian authorities say.”
The International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) said it is “fully aware of news” regarding Rekabi and it is their “understanding” 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 been trying to establish the facts. We have also been in contact with Ms Rekabi and the Iranian Climbing Federation,” a statement by the IFSC said.
“We will continue to monitor the situation as it develops upon her arrival,” the statement said.
Calls placed to two Iranian team coaches currently in Seoul were not answered.
Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the day Rekabi was told to depart Seoul.