A Spaniard who wanted to walk from Madrid to the soccer World Cup in Doha and has not reported to his family since the beginning of October is apparently in a Tehran prison. The 41-year-old is being held by the Iranian authorities, reports the Spanish sports newspaper "Marca", citing the TV channel Iran International. "According to reports that reached Iran International, Santiago Sánchez, a Spanish fan who has been missing for three weeks, was arrested after entering Iran in the city of Saqez along with his translator and transferred to Tehran," Marca quoted as saying a statement from the sender.
Iran has been wracked by mass unrest since 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini was stopped by vice squads in September for allegedly violating the strict Islamic dress code and died in the authorities' custody. Tehran has cracked down on the protesters, accusing foreign enemies and Kurdish groups in Iraq of fomenting the unrest without providing any evidence. "Sánchez must be detained or imprisoned until the situation calms down a little. They don't want anyone to receive information about what is happening there," "Marca" quoted the assumption of a friend of the adventurer.
Sánchez is an experienced tourer, former paratrooper and passionate football fan. In 2019, he had already cycled a similar route from Madrid to Saudi Arabia. On his current trip to the Qatari capital, the Spaniard had already crossed 15 countries and shared pictures and experiences on Instagram. "The idea of the journey is to motivate and inspire other people and show them that they can go very far with very little money," he explained.
Sánchez posted his last post on October 1. A day later he sent his parents an audio message, presumably from Iranian soil, in which he outlined his plans for the future. "I'm traveling with a friend who came to pick me up," the 41-year-old said in a calm voice, according to the Associated Press (AP) news agency. First he wants to go to the Iranian capital Tehran, where a television station wants to interview him. He will then make his way to Bandar Abbas, a port in southern Iran, where he will board a boat to Qatar.
Sánchez had warned his family before crossing over to Iran that communication there would not be as easy as it had been in the previous months. At first they weren't worried when no further news came, his mother Celia Cogedor reported on Monday before the report of her son's arrest. "After eight or nine days, my daughter and his closest friends started thinking that we need to report his disappearance." On October 17, his parents finally reported him missing to the Spanish authorities. "We are deeply concerned and we can't stop crying, my husband and I," said the distraught mother.
Two travel bloggers from New Zealand, who also disappeared from the scene after entering Iran almost four months ago, have meanwhile been able to leave the country, according to sources in Wellington. The couple is "safe and well," a New Zealand official told AFP on Wednesday. Bridget Thackwray and her husband Topher Richwhite, son of one of New Zealand's wealthiest men, entered Iran from Turkey in early July. Shortly thereafter, they stopped posting on their online channels, causing great concern among fans, friends and family.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her government had "worked hard" for several months to ensure the couple's safe exit. Thackwray and Richwhite had to endure "difficult circumstances". She was "delighted that they are unharmed". She did not comment on the details of the negotiations with the Iranian government. Also, what exactly happened to the couple in Iran is still unclear. Iranian officials told the AFP news agency that the couple had not been stopped or arrested.
In fact, however, people from Western countries are regularly detained by the Iranian government. Those arrested are usually only released after intensive negotiations behind the scenes. In the past, prisoner exchanges have taken place, leading to accusations that Tehran is engaged in "hostage diplomacy".
In the case of Sánchez, the Foreign Ministry in Madrid says it has involved the Spanish ambassador in Tehran. In view of the tough struggle for the bloggers from New Zealand, it seems doubtful that the football fan will be released before the start of the World Cup on November 20th.
Sources: "Marca", Santiago Sánchez on Instagram, ABC News, Associated Press, AFP