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Belarusian Protests Spill Off The Streets, Into The Sports Arena

Belarus center Alena Leuchanka gestures after a basket during a game against Japan at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil in August 2016.
Belarus center Alena Leuchanka gestures after a basket during a game against Japan at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil in August 2016.

Belarus's postelection protests have entered the sports arena, but athletes who boycott competition or participate in anti-government rallies will be sidelined for awhile if the authorities have anything to say about it.

They made that message clear this week, when the men's handball club Vitsyaz was kicked out of its training facility and barred from national league competition after it joined a growing list of athletes and teams showing solidarity with demonstrators demanding that Alyaksandr Lukashenka leave the presidential palace.

The Minsk-based club was punished by the Belarusian Handball Federation after it sat out its match with fellow club Masheka Mahilyou in support of star professional basketball player Alena Leuchanka, a leader of the national athletes' protest movement who was sentenced to 15 days in jail on September 30 for participating in unsanctioned demonstrations against Lukashenka.

Vitsyaz handball club says it has no "moral right" to play a match. (file photo)
Vitsyaz handball club says it has no "moral right" to play a match. (file photo)

The 37-year-old Leuchanka's arrest and sentencing caused a major stir in the Belarusian sporting world. A national team player and Olympian who played university ball in the United States and has competed in the WNBA in the United States and the Russian Superleague, Leuchanka was a domestic star with a global footprint.

Leuchanka was arrested on September 30 at the Minsk airport as she prepared to leave the country for medical treatment. After a court later the same day found her guilty of violating the law by publicly expressing her opinion, calling for fair elections, and carrying a banner saying, "Athletes are with the people," sports figures around the globe voiced their support and calls were made for Belarusians to boycott competitions until she was released.

In a press statement following the ruling, Vitsyaz handball club called the sentence "outrageous" and "illegal," and said that the club had "no moral right" to compete against fellow national league bottom-dweller Masheka on September 30.

The club said it had written to the Belarusian Handball Federation, headed by Lukashenka ally Uladzimer Kanaplyou, in which it said it was "consciously taking this step to protest against lawlessness and violent pressure against the citizens of Belarus."

On October 1, the club was back on social media, announcing that it had been suspended by the Handball Federation. On October 2, it provided details, saying that it had been barred from the national league -- called the Belarusian Handball Championship -- as well as from tournament play, a punishment it said violated league rules. And by October 3, the club was announcing that it was in need of a new gym, as it had been kicked out of the one it was using.

"Trouble does not come alone, and it so happened that we have been deprived of a place to train," the club wrote, asking gym owners who could help to please contact Vitsyaz.

Demanding To Be Heard

The 1.96-meter Leuchanka, who plays center and is one of Belarus's most famous athletes, has been active in the demonstrations against Lukashenka and his regime. She is a leader of the Free Association of Athletes (SOS BY) movement, which was formed shortly after Belarus's flawed August 9 presidential election that was officially won by Lukashenka, but which the opposition has said was rigged in its favor. She has appeared at rallies and posted images of herself donning the banned red-and-white colors adopted by the opposition.

Alena Leuchanka's sentence has drawn shock and outrage from fellow professionals.
Alena Leuchanka's sentence has drawn shock and outrage from fellow professionals.

And she has been outspoken in her views, giving a public video statement under the SOS BY banner in which she laid out her arguments for change, and telling RFE/RL's Belarus Service in September that the only way to move forward was to "no longer ask, but demand to be heard."

She is also among the more than 680 Belarusian athletes who have called on the Belarusian government to declare the elections invalid, release all detained protesters and political prisoners, and to identify and punish those responsible for beating and abusing citizens detained during peaceful demonstrations.

Minsk 'Madhouse'

The Vitsyaz handball club was far from alone in voicing its opposition to Leuchanka's jailing.

Katsyaryna Snytsina, who is captain of the national women's team and plays professionally in Turkey, told RFE/RL on October 1 that she was worried about the athletes who signed the open letter. Snytsina -- whose name is 11th on the list, just before Leuchanka's -- said that her teammate was prepared to go to jail and expressed confidence that she had things under control.

But Snystina said it was still a shock that Leuchanka would be handed a 15-day jail sentence, saying it was difficult to talk about athletes being "thrown in jail just because they express a civil position."

"This is not just another name from Belarusian basketball, she's an international figure," Snytsina said, describing her home country at the moment as a "madhouse."

Away from home, fellow basketball professionals such as the NBA's Enes Kanter expressed their outrage at Leuchanka's sentence. "She should be freed!" the Boston Celtics center wrote on Twitter on October 1.

The outpouring of support for Leuchanka builds on the solidarity with the opposition shown by Belarusian athletes following the election, with many athletes speaking out against Lukashenka and some even refusing to play until he is gone.

Written by Michael Scollon based on reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus Service and interviews by Belarus Service correspondent Ihar Karney
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