Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya on Monday received a humanitarian visa from Poland, having narrowly avoided being forced to board a plane back to her home country on Sunday after posting criticism of her coaches on social media.
Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz said on Twitter that the athlete is in direct contact with Polish diplomats in Tokyo. Earlier she was seen entering the Polish Embassy in Tokyo.
“She has received a humanitarian Visa,” he tweeted. “Poland will do whatever is necessary to help her to continue her sporting career.”
With all eyes on the Tokyo Games, the episode has renewed attention on the human rights situation in Belarus, with concerns growing over attempts to silence overseas regime critics, who face legal charges once they return to their native soil.
Although Tsimanouskaya’s remarks were aimed at her coaches, they have been interpreted as a criticism of the Belarusian government, as she officially represents the country at the Summer Games.
Since Sunday, the Japanese government and Olympic organizers have been coordinating with European envoys over her asylum in Europe.
“The Japanese government will take appropriate measures in cooperation with the relevant organizations” to ensure her safety, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told a regular news conference Monday.
On Monday, the International Olympic Committee confirmed that she was “safe and secure” and had spent the night at an airport hotel after she sought protection from police at Haneda Airport late Sunday.
The IOC said in a statement that it was looking into the situation and had asked the Belarus Olympic Committee (BOC) for clarification on the situation.
The scandal comes amid the Belarusian government’s intensifying crackdown on opposition forces, which has been escalating since around last year’s presidential election in August — a poll that was allegedly rigged. President Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994, when the office was established.
Tsimanouskaya was due to compete in the women’s 200-meter event Monday. But after she criticized her coaches on social media for forcing her to compete in a 400-meter relay, which she had not trained for, they told her on Sunday to pack her things and took her to the airport.
Although she was supposed to take a flight bound for Belarus on Sunday, the sprinter refused to board and sought help from the police.
She told Reuters in a message over Telegram, “I will not return to Belarus.”
Last week, she posted an Instagram video saying she was added to the relay race team on Thursday at short notice, after other members of the Belarusian team were found to be unable to compete due to a controversy surrounding doping tests.
“I have been removed from the team due to the fact that I spoke on my Instagram about the negligence of our coaches,” she said.
In a short video Tsimanouskaya released on Telegram, she asked the IOC to help her avoid being sent back to her home country.
“I am asking the International Olympic Committee for help. Pressure has been put on me and they are trying to take me out of the country without my consent, so I am asking the IOC to intervene in this,” she said in Belarusian.
In an interview with the BBC, Tadeusz Giczan, a London-based journalist with NEXTA, Belarus’s largest telegram channel, said, “All the national team athletes who have openly criticized the regime or the regime’s actions have already been kicked out of the national team.
The BOC rebuked Tsimanouskaya’s claims and explained its decision to shorten the sprinter’s participation in the Olympics by linking it to her mental state. Lukashenko’s son Viktor is president of the BOC.
“The coaching staff of the Belarusian national athletics team made a decision to withdraw Krystsina Tsimanouskaya from the Olympic Games, according to the doctor’s report on her mental and emotional state,” the BOC said in a statement.
But the athlete has argued the claims are untrue and that she has not seen any doctor who could assess her condition.
The revelation has drawn support from the Belarusian opposition and European countries, which have been voicing concerns about human rights violations in Belarus.
Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who heads Democratic Belarus and is based in Lithuania, condemned the regime’s actions and called the attempt to send Tsimanouskaya home a “kidnapping.”
“The regime’s hijack of the Ryanair plane was just the start of Lukashenka’s international terror. They kidnapped Pratasevich & Sapega, they tried to kidnap Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsymanouskaya,” she said on Twitter, referring to other victims of the government’s crackdown and using an alternative spelling of the Belarusian president’s name.
“She has a right to international protection & to continue participation in the @Olympics,” she said. “It is also crucial to investigate Belarus’ NOC violations of athletes’ rights.”
Japan’s Human Rights Watch also called for authorities to take action to protect the athlete.
“The Japanese government should continue to do everything it can, including coordination with other governments, to ensure she is not forced back to Belarus, and that her family back home is also protected from government repression,” said Teppei Kasai, the organization’s program officer.
Information from Reuters and Jiji added
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