MINSK -- More than 45,000 people have signed an online petition against holding the 2021 Ice Hockey World Championships in Minsk because of the ongoing violent crackdown on mass protests against elections that kept strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka in power despite opposition claims the vote was rigged.
Belarus is set to co-host the 2021 world ice hockey championships with Latvia in May and June, but Riga and many other European Union capitals have been calling for the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) to cancel Minsk’s involvement over the brutal crackdown, as well as fears that Lukashenka's government has failed to control the coronavirus pandemic and is underreporting cases and deaths.
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The petition addressed to the IIHF on the Change.org online platform was organized by a noted Belarusian female hockey player, Yulia Abasava.
"... I ask you today not to close your eyes to the fact that the tournament is being planned to be held in the country led by a bloody regime. Do not compromise the IIHF and ice hockey in general in front of the international community," Abasava's petition says.
According to Abasava, the issue of holding the tournament in Minsk can be discussed only after the "illegal regime" of Lukashenka is gone.
"If Lukashenka's bloody regime remains, then many of the illegally arrested people will be convicted and sent to prisons before the tournament starts. No tournament has more importance than human lives," Abasava wrote in the petition.
The number of signatures under the online petition abruptly rose after IIHF head Rene Fasel met with Lukashenka in the Belarusian capital on January 11 to discuss Minsk's arrangements to host the 2021 world hockey championships.
At the start of the meeting, the two men warmly embraced and shook hands.
Lukashenka, 66, has faced months of protests demanding he step down following the disputed presidential election in August 2020.
Nearly 30,000 people have been detained, and hundreds reportedly have been tortured in detention and beaten on the streets in the postelection crackdown by the government.
The European Union and the United States refuse to recognize Lukashenka as Belarus's legitimate leader and have imposed sanctions on him and other senior officials.