Hockey’s global governing body has criticized Latvian officials for removing the Belarusian flag from a display at the sport’s world championships in Riga and replacing it with a flag used by the opposition.
The switch on May 24 during the 16-nation tournament, which Minsk was originally scheduled to co-host, saw the official Belarusian flag swapped out for the red-and-white flag that has been adopted by opponents of the country’s authoritarian leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
The Latvian move came amid international outrage triggered by the forced landing over the weekend of a passenger jet in Minsk that allowed Belarusian authorities to arrest an opposition journalist on board the aircraft.
The Zurich-based International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) said in a statement on May 25 that it had asked the mayor of Riga to “urgently take down” the IIHF flag and the World Championship flag, which bears the IIHF name, to protest what it called a political gesture.
The IIHF said that it was an “apolitical sports organization” and that Belarus's hockey team is “separate” from the actions of Lukashenka’s government.
“The players have been welcomed to Latvia as guests and should not have to see their flag removed without their consent from the public display of the 16 participating countries,” the federation said.
In response, Riga Mayor Martins Stakis said the IIHF flags would be removed.
“Everyone has to choose a side -- a people thirsting for freedom, or a bloody dictator,”he tweeted.
Latvian President Egils Levits called the replacement of the Belarusian flag in Riga "an adequate political reaction and a signal that Latvia does not recognize the ruling regime in Belarus."
In January, the IIHF stripped Belarus of the right to co-host the 2021 World Championship after sponsors threatened to pull out amid an ongoing crackdown by authorities following a disputed presidential election last year.