SEOUL, South Korea - An Iranian female competitive climber left South Korea on Tuesday after competing at an event in which she climbed without her nation's mandatory headscarf covering, authorities said. Farsi-language media outside of Iran warned she may have been forced to leave early by Iranian officials and could face arrest back home, which Tehran quickly denied.
The decision by Elnaz Rekabi, a multiple medalist in competitions, to forgo the headscarf, or hijab, came as protests sparked by the Sept. 16 death in custody of a 22-year-old woman have entered a fifth week. Mahsa Amini was detained by the country's morality police over her clothing.
The demonstrations, drawing school-age children, oil workers and others to the street in over 100 cities, represent the most-serious challenge to Iran's theocracy since the mass protests surrounding its disputed 2009 presidential election.
A later Instagram post on an account attributed to Rekabi described her not wearing a hijab as "unintentional," though it wasn't immediately clear whether she wrote the post or what condition she was in at the time. The Iranian government routinely pressures activists at home and abroad, often airing what rights group describe as coerced confessions on state television.
Rekabi left Seoul on a Tuesday morning flight, the Iranian Embassy in South Korea said. The BBC's Persian service, which has extensive contacts within Iran despite being banned from operating there, quoted an unnamed "informed source" who described Iranian officials as seizing both Rekabi's mobile phone and passport.
BBC Persian also said she initially had been scheduled to return on Wednesday, but her flight apparently had been moved up unexpectedly.
IranWire, another website focusing on the country founded by Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari who once was detained by Iran, alleged that Rekabi would be immediately transferred to Tehran's notorious Evin Prison after arriving in the country. Evin Prison was the site of a massive fire this weekend that killed at least eight prisoners.
In a tweet, the Iranian Embassy in Seoul denied "all the fake, false news and disinformation" regarding Rekabi’s departure on Tuesday. But instead of posting a photo of her from the Seoul competition, it posted an image of her wearing a headscarf at a previous competition in Moscow, where she took a bronze medal.
Calls to the Iranian Embassy in Seoul rang unanswered Tuesday.
Rekabi didn’t put on a hijab during Sunday’s final at the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s Asia Championship, according to the Seoul-based Korea Alpine Federation, the organizers of the event.
Federation officials said Rekabi wore a hijab during her initial appearances at the one-week climbing event. She wore just a black headband when competing Sunday, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail; she had a white jersey with Iran's flag as a logo on it.
The later Instagram post, written in the first person, offered an apology on Rekabi's behalf. The post blamed a sudden call for her to climb the wall in the competition — although footage of the competition showed Rekabi relaxed as she approached and after she competed. It also sought to describe her travel back to Iran on Tuesday as being "on schedule."
Rekabi was on Iran’s 11-member delegation, comprised of eight athletes and three coaches, to the event, according to the federation.
Federation officials said they were not initially aware of Rekabi competing without the hijab but looked into the case after receiving inquires about her. They said the event doesn’t have any rules on requiring female athletes wearing or not wearing headscarves. However, Iranian women competing abroad under the Iranian flag always wear the hijab.
"Our understanding is that she is returning to Iran, and we will continue to monitor the situation as it develops on her arrival," the International Federation of Sport Climbing, which oversaw the event, said in a statement. "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."
The federation said it had been in touch with both Rekabi and Iranian officials, but declined to elaborate on the substance of those calls when reached by The Associated Press. The federation also declined to discuss the Instagram post attributed to Rekabi and the claims in it.
South Korea’s Justice Ministry refused to confirm whether the Iranian athlete is still in South Korea or has left the country, citing privacy-related regulations. South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said it has no comments on the issue.
Rekabi, 33, has finished on the podium three times in the Asian Championships, taking one silver and two bronze medals for her efforts.
FILE IMAGE - Iran's Elnaz Rekabi competes in the Women's Lead qualification at the indoor World Climbing and Paraclimbing Championships 2016 at the Accor Hotels Arena in Paris on Sept. 14, 2016. (Photo credit: MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images)
So far, human rights groups estimate that over 200 people have been killed in the protests and the violent security force crackdown that followed. Iran has not offered a death toll in weeks. Demonstrations have been seen in over 100 cities, according to the group Human Rights Activists in Iran. Thousands are believed to have been arrested.
Gathering information about the demonstrations remains difficult, however. Internet access has been disrupted for weeks by the Iranian government. Meanwhile, authorities have detained at least 40 journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly alleged the country's foreign enemies are behind the ongoing demonstrations, rather than Iranians angered by Amini’s death and the country's other woes.
Iranians have seen their life savings evaporate; the country's currency, the rial, plummeted and Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers has been reduced to tatters.
In a statement Tuesday, the office of the United Nations high commissioner for human rights called for the immediate release of all those "arbitrarily detained" in the protests. It also criticized the "unabated violent response by security forces" that has seen even children reportedly arrested and killed.
"The continued unnecessary and disproportionate use of force against protesters must stop," the statement said. "Arresting people solely for exercising their rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression constitutes an arbitrary deprivation of liberty."
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers John Marshall in Phoenix and Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul contributed to this report.