Elnaz Rekabi: Iranian climber who defied strict dress code receives hero's welcome in Tehran

In this image taken from video by Iran's state-run IRNA news agency, Iranian competitive climber Elnaz Rekabi speaks to journalists. Credit: AP

An Iranian climber who appeared to go missing after competing without a mandatory headscarf has been given a hero's welcome in Tehran.

Crowds cheered as Elnaz Rekabi landed at Imam Khomeini International Airport as she was welcomed back to Iran's capital in the early hours of Wednesday.

Fears had grown for the athlete after she competed in South Korea without wearing a mandatory hijab amid female-led protests across Iran after the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody for allegedly not wearing her headscarf correctly.

Iranian women competing abroad under the Iranian flag must wear the hijab.

Video shared online showed large crowds at the airport, chanting the 33-year-old's name and calling her a hero.

Ms Rekabi wore just a black headband with her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. Credit: AP

She told reporters that she had been in a women's-only area before her climb in the final of the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s Asia Championship and had simply forgotten to put her hijab on prior to competing - an explanation she had given earlier on an Instagram account in her name.

“Because I was busy putting on my shoes and my gear, it caused me to forget to put on my hijab and then I went to compete," she said.

She added: “I came back to Iran with peace of mind although I had a lot of tension and stress. But so far, thank God, nothing has happened.”

In video posted online, she is seen apparently entering a van and driven slowly through the crowds.

It wasn't clear where she went after that.

Hundreds of protesters have been killed in the uprisings in the wake of Ms Amini's death, and fears had grown for Rekabi after she appeared to go missing after competing without her headscarf.

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BBC Persia reported Iranian officials had seized her mobile phone and passport and that the flight she had originally been booked on last week had been moved unexpectedly.Persian language website IranWire, founded by Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, alleged Rekabi would be transferred to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where eight prisoners died last week in a huge fire.

The Iranian Embassy in Seoul denied “all the fake, false news and disinformation” surrounding Rekabi’s departure in a statement on Twitter alongside an image of the climber wearing a headscarf at a previous competition in Moscow.

The death of Mahsa Amini has sparked ongoing protests in Iran. Credit: AP

The International Federation of Sport Climbing said: “Our understanding is that she is returning to Iran, and we will continue to monitor the situation as it develops on her arrival.”

“It is important to stress that athletes’ safety is paramount for us and we support any efforts to keep a valued member of our community safe in this situation.”

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry acknowledged the departure of the Iranian athlete and her team from the country but did not give any details.

So far, human rights groups estimate more than 200 people have been killed in the protests in over 100 cities and the violent security force crackdown that followed.

Iran has not offered a death toll in weeks. Thousands are believed to have been arrested.

Foreign secretary James Cleverly said the situation was "something we are looking at in great detail".

"We are keeping a very, very close eye on what's going on in Iran. My strong recommendation to the Iranian regime is to recognise that these people's concerns are legitimate."

Gathering information about the demonstrations remains difficult and internet access has been disrupted for weeks by the Iranian government.

Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have repeatedly alleged the country’s foreign enemies are behind the ongoing demonstrations, rather than Iranians angered by Ms Amini’s death.