The appeal that the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) started hearing this Wednesday was filed by the Iran Judo Federation against a protective suspension imposed by the International Judo Federation (IJF) one year ago.
The ban, which prevents Iranian judoka from competing in any IJf-sanctioned events, was imposed just weeks after an incident at the 2019 World Judo Championships in Tokyo, when defending champion Saeid Mollaei deliberately lost his semifinal bout in order to avoid a possible match with an Israeli opponent.
Mollaei, who didn’t return to Iran following the tournament but moved to Germany instead, said he had chosen to throw the fight following a a couple of phone calls and a video call from high-ranking officials with the Iranian regime that his coach received prior to the bout.
He said that through his coach, the officials warned him against winning his semifinal, as an Israeli judoka was favored to win the other semi — raising the possibility of the Iranian meeting the Israeli in on the mat. This is something that the Islamic Republic has effectively banned through an unwritten rule for more than four decades.
Shortly after arriving in Germany last year, Mollaei, champion in the 81-kilogram class at the 2018 World Championships in Baku, told DW that he had no choice but to avoid winning his semifinal in Tokyo, whether by throwing the bout, or feigning an injury as he had done on previous occasions.
“I had to comply with the orders,” Mollaei said. “Not only I, but the whole world knows what sort of consequences there would have been had I refused. So I complied with the law to avoid any problems for myself or my family.”
Saeid Mollaei deliberately lost his semifinal at the 2019 World Championships in order to avoid facing an Israeli opponent
For its part, the Iran Judo Federation has rejected the accusation.
“The Iran Judo Federation states that Mr. Saeid Mollaei has never been instructed by the Iranian authorities and the Iran Judo Federation to withdraw from competing to avoid a potential contest against an Israeli athlete,” the International Judo Federation noted in its statement from October 2019 announcing that the suspension had been finalized.
Now Mollaei is one of three Iranians who are in Lausanne to testify at Tehran’s appeal hearing in which the Islamic Republic is seeking to get its ban on competing in international judo events overturned.
The others are Mohammad Mansouri, the former coach of Iran’s national judo team, and former Iranian judoka Vahid Sarlak, who is now the coach of Tajikistan. Like Mollaei, Sarlak was ordered by the Islamic Republic to avoid facing an Israeli opponent, causing him to choose not to return to his country from the Netherlands following the 2009 World Championships.
Mollaei and Sarlak are by no means alone in this regard. In recent years several other top Iranian athletes have chosen not to return to the Islamic Republic over the unwritten rule against competing against Israelis.
“The athletes are saying: ‘We don’t want that anymore and we and don’t want to support the autocratic mullah regime,'” said German-Iranian journalist Farid Ashrafian, who works for DW’s Persian service. “But they always emphasize their Iranian identity, which has nothing to do with the Islamic Republic.”
Sarlak, who has known Mollaei from a young age, was at the worlds in Tokyo and heard the calls from Tehran to the Iranian coach ordering Mollaei not to win his semifinal. Speaking to DW’s Persian service, Sarlak said as someone who had also suffered under this policy while still an active wrestler, he decided to testify against Iran’s appeal to try to help bring an end to Tehran’s policy of preventing its athletes from competing against Israelis.
Vahid Sarlak chose not to return to Iran after the 2009 World Championships
“Iranian athletes want to be able to compete against athletes from all other nations, including Israelis,” Sarlak said.
Prior to Wednesday’s hearing, Sarlak, Mollaei and Mansouri had all been placed under police protection at a secret location in the Lausanne area.
“In recent weeks the Iranian regime has stepped up pressure on me not to testify at the appeal hearing, not to tell the truth about what happened, saying that if I did so I would be a traitor to my country,” Sarlak told DW.
However, the former judoka, who is now a naturalized German citizen, said that not only would he not be intimidated, but that he was also convinced that the Iranian side didn’t stand a chance of winning its case in court.
“The evidence is so clear that I see no chance at all that the Court of Arbitration for Sport will overturn the Iranian Judo Federation’s suspension,” Sarlak said. “This will end in a fiasco for the Islamic Republic and the Iranian taxpayers, as they are certain to lose this appeal and then be forced to pay the court costs.”
The CAS has set aside just one day for the appeal, even though the court is to hear not just from the three Iranians but also several other witnesses.
DW’s Farid Ashrafian contributed to this report.