The head of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), Rene Fasel, says he "regrets the negative reaction" to his meeting this week with Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Minsk and it wasn't a sign of support for the violent crackdown on demonstrators who dispute August elections that kept him in power.
In a question-and-answer report with the IIHF's website published on January 13, Fasel said the meeting was "serious in tone" and "absolutely necessary" as debate rages about whether the country should co-host the ice hockey World Championships with Latvia this spring.
Riga and many other European Union capitals have been calling for the IIIHF 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.
When asked if he felt the visit made a negative impression, Fasel responded: "Yes, and we regret the negative reaction that was caused by the pictures and videos that came from the meeting.... If we made the impression that it was a just a friendly meeting, this is not accurate and was not our intention."
Fasel added, "This meeting was taken in a serious tone and with the IIHF bringing specific and difficult questions to the table."
Video and photos from the Fasel-Lukashenka meeting showing the two men hugging as they met sparked a backlash from many, including Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has been in Lithuania for several months after saying she feared for her and her family's safety if they remained in the country.
Most other opposition leaders have been jailed or have left the country.
More than 45,000 people have signed an online petition against holding the 2021 ice hockey world championships in Minsk.
"Fasel is shaking hands and hugging the dictator," Tsikhanouskaya wrote on Twitter.
"A few miles away from them, people are imprisoned in inhumane conditions as political prisoners," she added, noting that Swiss-Belarusian dual citizen Nataliia Hersche was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison by Lukashenka's regime for participating in peaceful protests in Belarus. Fasel is Swiss.
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 have reportedly been tortured in detention and beaten on the streets in the postelection crackdown by the government.
The turmoil prompted Latvia to seek to prevent its neighbor from co-hosting the tournament. Riga has also blacklisted the head of Belarus's ice hockey federation, Dzmitry Baskau, a close ally of Lukashenka.
Losing the tournament would be a further blow to Lukashenka, who has cultivated an image as a jock, regularly taking to the ice to play hockey, his favorite sport.
Fasel said no decision had been made on moving the tournament and that "the first option remains to have a World Championship in Minsk and Riga 2021."
"If we move forward with Minsk as a tournament host, we also must establish a system where we can be assured that the Belarus government is taking concrete actions towards fulfilling the pledges made to the IIHF, otherwise it will not be possible to hold a World Championship in Minsk due to the elevated safety issues," he said.
"Among these [requirements] was a pledge to find peaceful solutions towards improving the socio-political situation within the country, and to allow all Belarusian athletes the opportunity to return to and compete in their respective sports."