Spanish man trekking to World Cup believed arrested in Iran

MADRID (AP) — A Spanish man trekking from Madrid to Doha for the 2022 FIFA World Cup is believed to be under arrest in Iran where he went missing more than three weeks ago, his family said Wednesday.

“We learned this morning from the (Spanish) foreign ministry that there’s a 99% chance he (has been) arrested,” Celia Cogedor, the mother of 41-year-old trekker Santiago Sanchez, told The Associated Press.

“We are filled with hope,” she said.

Sanchez and his translator are believed to be in a prison in Tehran, the Spaniard’s parents said.

Sanchez’s sister is due to meet Thursday with officials at the Spanish Foreign Ministry in Madrid to learn further details.

“We have gone from being in permanent suspense to having a very big ray of hope, so now we trust in the efforts of the embassy, which is the one that will officially tell us the situation he is in,” Santiago Sanchez told the AP.

The foreign ministry said in a statement that the Spanish embassy in Tehran is in touch with Iranian authorities about Sanchez. It declined to provide further details.

Iran is being engulfed by mass unrest, triggering fears about Sanchez’s fate after he stopped contacting his family in Spain on Oct. 2, a day after he crossed the Iraq-Iran border. He had warned his family that communication might be difficult in Iran.

A Kurdish group called the Hengaw Organization for Human Rights reported that Sanchez was taken away by Iranian security forces after visiting the grave of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old whose death in police custody sparked the current antigovernment protest movement.

The group, citing anonymous sources, said that Iranian intelligence agents arrested him in Saqez, Amini’s hometown.

The Kurdish group is based just across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan but has reliable connections in northwest Iran.

Neither Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs nor its mission to the United Nations responded to requests for comment.

The Spanish adventurer planned to go to Tehran, the Iranian capital, where a television station wanted to interview him. His next step would have been Bandar Abbas, a port in southern Iran where he would hop on a boat to Qatar. But all traces of him vanished even before he reached Tehran, his parents said.

His parents reported him missing on Oct. 17. They said Spain’s police and diplomats were helping the family.

This was not Sanchez’s first time in Iran. In 2019 the fervent soccer fan cycled a similar route to get from Madrid to Saudi Arabia.

His parents say they are proud of his adventurous spirit and say his only aims are to help others and promote the Real Madrid soccer team.

The demonstrations in Iran erupted on Sept. 16 over the death of Amini, who was taken into custody by Iran’s morality police for allegedly not adhering to the country’s strict Islamic dress code.

Tehran has violently cracked down on protesters and blamed foreign enemies and Kurdish groups in Iraq for fomenting the unrest, without offering evidence. The Iranian Intelligence Ministry said authorities had arrested nine foreigners, mostly Europeans, over their alleged links to the protests.

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