Poland offers refuge to Belarusian Olympian seeking asylum

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya fears reprisals from Lukashenko regime over criticisms

A screen grab taken from a video showing Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya talking on social media. Photograph: ESN/AFP via Getty Images

A screen grab taken from a video showing Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya talking on social media. Photograph: ESN/AFP via Getty Images

 

Belarusian Olympian Krystsina Tsimanouskaya is expected to seek refuge in Poland after refusing to return to her homeland because of fears for her safety at the hands of its autocratic regime.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney described Ms Tsimanouskaya’s plight as “disturbing” and said it was “not what we want to see during the Olympics”.

He said “she has sought a humanitarian visa because she doesn’t want to go home and is obviously fearful to return to Belarus”.

Speaking on RTÉ news on Monday night, Mr Coveney it “says an awful lot about the Lukashenko regime in Belarus where their own athletes are even nervous to come home”.

The sprinter refused to board a flight out of Tokyo on Sunday and said she was being forced to leave Japan by Belarusian sports officials, whose alleged mismanagement of the country’s Olympic team she had sharply criticised in a video posted online.

Ms Tsimanouskaya (24) entered the Polish embassy in Tokyo early on Monday and Warsaw said it had offered her a humanitarian visa, amid a brutal crackdown in neighbouring Belarus on critics of veteran ruler Alexander Lukashenko and his allies.

“She has received a humanitarian visa. Poland will do whatever is necessary to help her to continue her sporting career. Poland always stands for solidarity,” Polish deputy foreign minister Marcin Przydacz said on social media.

Ms Tsimanouskaya is expected to fly to Warsaw this week and to be reunited there with her husband Arseny Zdanevich, who fled Belarus as the furore developed and was in neighbouring Ukraine on Monday.

The 200m specialist, who was scheduled to race in Tokyo on Monday, said Belarusian sports officials ordered her to pack her bags urgently and prepare to be put on an aircraft after she complained that she and other athletes were being made to suffer for administrators’ inept handling of the team’s Olympic preparations.

Mr Lukashenko’s regime has been braced for signs of dissent from its Olympians, and he and his son Viktor – the head of the Belarusian Olympic Committee – were banned from attending the Tokyo games.

Ms Tsimanouskaya said officials told her that “this is no longer at the level of the [Belarusian] athletics federation or the sports ministry, but at a higher level. That they must eliminate me from the Olympics, send me home, because I am interfering with the team’s performance.”

Asked by Belarusian sports website Tribuna why she refused to fly home, she said: “Because I am scared that in Belarus they might put me in jail. I’m not scared of being fired or expelled from the national team. I am worried for my safety. I think that at the moment it’s dangerous for me in Belarus.”

The Belarusian Olympic Committee insisted that it had withdrawn the sprinter from the games due to concerns about her “emotional, psychological state” – claims which she dismissed as nonsense.

Protests

Rigged presidential elections last August sparked huge protests against Mr Lukashenko, and in the bloody police response several people died, hundreds were hurt and 35,000 were detained; rights groups say more than 600 political prisoners are still being held in Belarusian jails, and several leading opposition figures are behind bars or have fled abroad.

While Belarusian opposition figures expressed support and urged the International Olympic Committee to protect Ms Tsimanouskaya, pro-regime figures in her homeland denounced her behaviour.

Belarusian parliamentary deputy and former Olympic canoeist Aleksandr Maseikov said it seemed that Ms Tsimanouskaya had “gone to the Olympics not to compete but with her own plan . . . and it was only necessary to find a pretext to turn her wishes into reality.”

The incident at Tokyo airport recalled the defections of Soviet bloc athletes during the communist era, and came two months after Mr Lukashenko’s regime forced a Ryanair jet to land at Minsk so that an opposition activist on board could be arrested.

“Thanks to the quick action of Japanese and Polish authorities, Tsimanouskaya is able to evade the attempts of the Lukashenko regime to discredit and humiliate this Tokyo 2020 athlete for expressing her views,” tweeted the US ambassador to Belarus, Julie Fisher.

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