The Polish Embassy in Tokyo is located in a quiet neighborhood in Meguro Ward. But on Monday, the atmosphere there was unusually tense as about 80 reporters, photographers and TV crew members swarmed around waiting for Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya to show up.
At around 5 p.m., the 24-year-old Olympian, who narrowly escaped being sent back home against her will by the Beralus Olympic Committee on Sunday, was escorted to the embassy with police by her side. She feared that if she went back to Belarus, it could have meant the end of her career.
“She contacted us on Monday morning … and I met with her when she arrived and assisted with procedures to grant her a humanitarian visa,” Poland’s Ambassador to Japan Pawel Milewski said in an exclusive interview with The Japan Times on Thursday. “She was worried about her family, so we gave her a safe Wi-Fi router to contact loved ones.”
In the days following her arrival, a dozen or so police officers were on alert, taking turns monitoring the area around the clock.
“We didn’t rule out the possibility that there might be some provocations from the Belarusian side,” Milewski said.
Poland, which was the first country to offer her asylum, issued Tsimanouskaya the humanitarian visa later on Monday. Two days later, she departed Japan for Warsaw and was reunited with her husband there. It remains unclear whether the sprinter will remain in Poland or will seek asylum in another country.
Looking back at the incident, Milewski stressed that both Poland and Japan went to great lengths to protect the athlete, fearing that sending her home could put her in danger.
“The fact that Japan and the police forces engaged so actively (to ensure her protection) shows that both countries share an understanding about human rights violations” and the plight of the oppressed, Milewski said of the prompt intervention.
While acknowledging the very different context, Milewski likened Poland-Japan cooperation over the incident to that between Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who issued visas to Polish and Lithuanian Jews in Kaunas, Lithuania, during World War II, and Tadeusz Romer, the first Polish ambassador to Japan, who also played a role in helping Jews fleeing Nazi persecution who were arriving in Japan.
The Tsimanouskaya incident, which occurred during the Tokyo Olympics, shed light on the growing concerns about human rights violations in Belarus.
Poland’s diplomats in Japan had noticed signs of tension within the Belarusian delegation from the start of the Games.
But the last-minute change to the sprinter’s schedule and her appeal for help on social media sparked Poland’s reaction.
Tsimanouskaya, who was in Japan to participate in the women’s 100 meters and 200 meters, publicly criticized her coaches after she was told to compete in a 4×400-meter relay race she had not prepared for.
During an hourlong conversation with Tsimanouskaya over coffee, the athlete said she feared that her participation in the 400 relay, which she described as an order from Minsk, could have led to a career-ending injury, Milewski said.
“It could not be ruled out that Tsimanouskaya would be forced to put an end to her career or even face prison time for insubordination if she returned to Belarus,” Milewski said.
Beralus has been experiencing political turmoil ever since the contested re-election of Beralusian President Alexander Lukashenko in August last year, which, according to rights groups including Human Rights Watch, has led to a more egregious crackdown on freedoms of expression and critics of the regime.
Lukashenko has been in power since 1994.
Amid growing concerns about its repressive regime, Poland has been actively supporting its neighbor, especially since August last year, and has issued humanitarian visas to 150,000 people from Belarus seeking asylum, Milewski said.
“Poland is one of the countries most actively supporting Belarusians — not only those protesting against the regime and its actions, but also those who for other nonpolitical reasons have been forced to flee the country,” Milewski explained.
Poland has strongly criticized human rights violations by its neighbor and called for an end to reprisals and the use of force against Belarusians.
Even though she narrowly missed the quarterfinals in her first 100-meter race, Tsimanouskaya still had another shot at the podium during a 200-meter race scheduled for Monday. But her participation was cut short when her team ordered her to pack her bags and fly back to Beralus the day before.
“The Olympics should be a celebration of sports and freedom … and should enable people to make their dreams come true,” Milewski said.
“I hope (Tsimanouskaya’s) case will not only draw attention in Japan to the situation in Belarus and Europe, but will also underline the need to cooperate in the interest of those who are suffering due to the (collapse) of democracy.”
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