On October 1, Spanish hiker and football fanatic Santiago Sánchez posted a series of photos on Instagram.
“Last village in northern Iraq, a mountain separates me from reaching Iran, the next country before reaching Qatar,” he wrote, accompanied by photos of his trip through Iraq.
Sánchez was nearing the final leg of his mammoth trek from Madrid to Doha for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. He hasn’t posted since. All contact was lost on October 2. After weeks of concern among friends and family over his whereabouts, it emerged the 41-year-old was in custody in Iran’s capital Tehran.
“He was arrested and he is now in a prison in Tehran,” one of his friends, Francho Salamanca, told BBC News.
Spain’s foreign ministry told the BBC its embassy in Tehran was in contact with Iranian authorities, but declined to comment further. Iran’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. What happened to Sánchez upon entering Iran is not entirely clear.
The Hengaw Organization for Human Rights, based across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan, quoted unnamed sources as saying he was ‘abducted by Iranian security forces’ after surrendering at the grave of Mahsa Amini, who died in custody after being arrested for allegedly wearing her hijab. “incorrectly”.
Protests have swept Iran since Ms Amini, 22, died on September 16. Norway-based Iran Human Rights says at least 234 protesters, including 29 children, have been killed by security forces in the crackdown so far. Iranian leaders have described the unrest as “riots” fomented by foreigners.
Sánchez, a former paratrooper and avid Real Madrid fan, was planning to travel to Tehran, where a TV channel wanted to interview him. He would then head to Bandar Abbas, a port in southern Iran, where he would sail to Qatar. He told his friends and family that he would have little internet in Iran, so initially they weren’t too worried when he didn’t contact them. But concern grew after he did not contact his parents for 10 days, and they reported him missing on October 17.
“We are deeply worried, we can’t stop crying, my husband and I,” his mother, Celia Cogedor, told the Associated Press news agency earlier this week.
When family and friends were informed by the Spanish government that Sánchez was in prison, no official reason was given for his detention. His mother told AP the family was “filled with hope” after learning he had been detained. to meet with Spanish Foreign Ministry officials in Madrid on Thursday to learn more, AP reported.
Sánchez began his journey in January, traveling through Europe and Turkey, sleeping in a tent, hotels and houses, before entering Iraq. In August, he said he dreamed of meeting the Spanish team in Qatar and hoped to inspire them to victory.
“If you don’t set a date for your dreams, you don’t achieve them,” he told Reuters news agency, referring to the November 20 kick-off.