PRAGUE/BRATISLAVA -- European Parliament deputy and Slovak hockey legend Peter Stastny has warned that allowing Belarus to host the IIHF ice-hockey world championship in 2014 would legitimize President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's repressive policies, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reports.
Stastny, who represents this year's host, Slovakia, in the European Parliament, told RFE/RL on May 13 that the championship cannot be held in Belarus until Lukashenka releases all of its political prisoners.
His comments came as this year's world championship neared its culmination in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, and its second city, Kosice, and trials continued in Minsk
against critics of December presidential balloting in an ongoing clampdown on dissent.
Stastny argued that the postelection crackdown in Belarus has changed everything since Belarus won the bid to hold the 2014 event.
"The fact that more than 600 people were brutally beaten and jailed merely for their attempt to express their political viewpoint has changed many things," said Stastny, who played in the National Hockey League for 16 years and is considered one of the all-time greatest Slovak players.
European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek and other senior parliament deputies wrote to the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) on May 11, urging it to bar Belarus from hosting the championship in light of the vicious crackdown against opposition politicians and thousands of their supporters who protested the outcome of the presidential ballot awarded to Lukashenka. The protesters claim the vote was rigged.
"We urge the International Ice Hockey Federation to take appropriate action to ensure that Lukashenka does not receive the international reward or legitimacy which comes with hosting the 2014 ice hockey championship until he releases all political prisoners," Buzek said in the statement.
Buzek cited the detentions of hundreds of opposition activists during and after the December 19 protests. Dozens of them are currently on trial or are facing prosecution. He said the championship could not be held under such "appalling conditions."
On May 12, Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh termed the European Parliament proposal "strange." He pointed out that "sport has been divorced from politics since the times of ancient Greece."
The European Union has ostracized Lukashenka since the polls, imposing sanctions on members of his inner circle and ending a cautious rapprochement embarked upon in the months leading up to the election.
Lukashenka is a major hockey fan who reportedly plays the game nearly every day.
The Belarusian national team finished 14th in this week's championship.
Finland and Sweden will co-host the 2012 and 2013 world championships. The tournament will be held in Russia in 2015.Read more in Belarusian here