The European Union has sharply criticized Minsk's attempt to force a Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya to return home early from the Olympics after criticizing coaches of her national team, and welcomed EU-member Poland's decision to grant the 24-year-old athlete a humanitarian visa.
"The attempt to forcibly repatriate Krystsina Tsimanouskaya against her own will is another example of the brutality of the repression of [Alyaksandr Lukashenka's] regime that hits all categories of Belarusian society, including athletes, and does not respect any Olympic truce," Nabila Massrali, a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said on August 2.
In comments to Reuters, Massrali went on to express Brussels' "full solidarity" with Tsimanouskaya and lauded "the fact that she has now been given a humanitarian visa by Poland."
Tsimanouskaya was seen entering the Polish Embassy on August 2 after appealing for Japanese and international help to avoid being put on a flight against her will and spending the night at Tokyo's international airport after apparently running afoul of Belarusian officials.
"I can confirm that we have issued a humanitarian visa. I can confirm that we will provide all necessary support in Poland if she wishes to use it," Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski said on August 2.
Polish officials have said the sprinter requested the humanitarian visa and that she will be eligible to seek refugee status once in Poland. The activist group Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation (BSSF) has said it has purchased Tsimanouskaya a plane ticket to Warsaw, and that she plans to seek asylum.
Multiple reports said Tsimanouskaya's husband, Arsen Zhdanevich, had traveled to Ukraine from Belarus as his wife continues to fight repatriation.
Tsimanouskaya has expressed fears she could face arrest in her homeland over criticism she aired on social media of her coaches' decision to enter her in a race she had not prepared to run.
The sprinter's plight, which erupted when she sought help to avoid being hustled by Belarusian handlers onto a flight at Tokyo's Haneda Airport on August 1, has led to offers of help from Poland, France, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia.
The Japanese Foreign Ministry is working with organizers of the Tokyo games as well as the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is also involved in efforts to help resolve Tsimanouskaya's situation.
The international actions to respond to her pleas for help were praised by U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher, whose country has been among the leading international critics of Alyaksandr Lukashenka's rights record and yearlong crackdown on a pro-democracy movement and other dissent since he claimed a disputed reelection in August 2020.
"Thanks to the quick action of Japanese and Polish authorities, Tsimanouskaya is able to evade the attempts of the Lukashenko regime to discredit and humiliate this #Tokyo2020 athlete for expressing her views," Julie Fisher said in a tweet.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election.
Lukashenka has long regarded sports as an effective forum for countering adverse news about decades of human rights violations and political repression in Belarus.
Lukashenka served as head of the Belarusian National Olympic Committee until recently handing over its leadership to his eldest son, Viktar, in a move that was not recognized by the IOC.
Alyaksandr Opeikin, a spokesman for the BSSF, which supports opposition athletes, told Current Time that Tsimanouskaya's fears have been compounded by the airing of several "lambasting programs" on "propaganda TV channels."
Tsimanouskaya was due to compete in the women's 200-meter sprint on August 2. But the athlete said her coaching staff ordered her to pack her bags before taking her to the airport.
Tsimanouskaya had alleged on social media that she was entered by Belarusian officials into the women’s 4x400-meter relay event on July 29 on short notice after some team members were found to be ineligible to compete.
The Belarusian Olympic Committee said in a statement that Tsimanouskaya withdrew from the games on the advice of doctors concerned about her "emotional [and] psychological state.”
Euroradio and the Nick and Mike group on Telegram and YouTube, which monitors human rights in Belarus, published an audio recording on August 1 that they say was recorded when two Belarusian sports officials were talking to Tsimanouskaya.
The two male voices in the recording tell Tsimanouskaya her decision to raise the coaching issue on social networks was "stupid" because "people may lose their jobs" as a result. They say she needs to return to Belarus.
The Nasha Niva newspaper identified one of the individuals in the recording as the head coach of the Belarusian national team in track-and-field, Yury Maisevich. The Nick and Mike group identify the second man as senior Belarusian Olympics official Artur Shumak.
"You just go home. Don't write anything anywhere. Give no comments. I am giving you word-for-word what I was told," one of the men says over the sound of a woman seemingly crying. "If you want to continue to perform on behalf of the Republic of Belarus, just listen to what they recommend. Go home to your parents, or elsewhere. Let this situation go. Otherwise, the more you move, it's like when a fly gets in a spiderweb: The more it turns around, the more it gets tangled."
The other male voice in the audio suggests that Tsimanouskaya say nothing to her husband or relatives and echoes the call for her to go back to Belarus.
Tsimanouskaya confirmed to Current Time that it is her voice in the audio. Current Time is the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
The IOC has asked the NOC to provide detailed explanations on the situation faced by Tsimanouskaya, Deutsche Welle reported on August 2.
The IOC in March announced its refusal to recognize Viktar Lukashenka's leadership of the Belarusian national effort for reasons that included a failure to ensure "better protection of the athletes’ rights and preserve the athletes from any discrimination or undue pressure."
Lukashenka has been banned from the Tokyo Olympics by the IOC, which investigated complaints from athletes that they faced reprisals and intimidation in fallout from the protests against his disputed re-election.