How sport has become a “battleground for retaliation” in Belarus | Human rights news

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Alexander Opeikin ran one of the most successful handball clubs in the former Soviet Belarus.

Today, he is a wanted fugitive for “undermining national security”, living in exile in Ukraine.

In 2012, he founded the Vityaz club in the nation of 9.5 million people, whose president Alexander Lukashenko defends sport as the ideological pillar of his decades-long rule.

Since taking office in 1994, he has presented athletes with government awards, keys to cars and apartments, and thousands of dollars in cash for their international championship victories and Olympic medals.

“He tried to build loyalty among athletes and translate that loyalty more to their audience,” Opeikin, 35, told Al Jazeera.

Lukashenko’s tenure as head of the Belarusian Olympic Committee (NOC) was only slightly shorter than his current presidency – he ended it last November after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned him from attend the Tokyo Games.

Today, the NOC is headed by Lukashenko’s eldest son Viktor, who was also banned from entering.

The ban follows Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown on the mass anti-government protests that hit Belarus after its victory in a disputed vote on August 9, 2020.

The poll gave the 66-year-old a sixth presidential term, but his political opponents and some polling officials claimed his landslide victory was rigged.

Athletes protest

The Opeikin handball club stopped training in protest and was withdrawn from the national championship.

He and his members took part in recent rallies and were among more than 1,000 athletes who signed a petition urging Lukashenko to end the crackdown.

Lukashenko considered this a “betrayal”.

“He was so afraid to protest against athletes because he knows full well that famous athletes strongly influence public opinion,” said Opeikin, who fled to neighboring Ukraine after being accused of “harming to national security “and” deliberately disseminating false information “in April.

“Lukashenko considers them all to be traitors,” he added.

Today, Opeikin heads the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Fund, a group based in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, which helps athletes in difficulty or in exile.

At least 95 of the petition’s signatories have been taken into custody after participating in the protests, seven face criminal charges they believe to be politically motivated and 124 others have suffered other forms of abuse, according to the Ukrainian branch of the global human rights group Amnesty International.

“Belarusian athletes have paid a high price for daring to speak out and it is clear that sport is now a battleground for reprisals in Belarus,” Amnesty researcher Heather McGill said in a statement. last week.

More games

But the plight of Belarusian athletes only gained international attention earlier this month, when Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya refused her team’s order to return home before the Tokyo Games.

The 24-year-old said she feared for her safety in Belarus.

Even after Poland granted her a humanitarian visa, concerns about her safety forced her to change planes at the last minute and travel to Warsaw via Vienna.

These concerns were fueled by an incident in May that saw Lukashenko send a military plane to force an airliner bound for Lithuania over Belarus to land in Minsk, after which police arrested the opposition journalist on board. Roman Protasevich for his alleged involvement in “extremism”. ”.

Protasevich, who faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted, appeared in a “confession” video that his supporters say was recorded under duress.

Then another Belarusian Olympian decided to defect.

On August 3, decathlete Andreu Krauchanka, who won a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and holds the Belarusian national record for the event, decided to stay in Germany with his wife, heptathlete Yana Maksimava. , she wrote on Instagram.

“You can lose not only the freedom, but the life there,” she wrote under a photo of herself and her grandson.

“It is possible to breathe freely here and to be part of those who fight for the freedom of their people, their relatives and loved ones; we will win for sure, ”she added.

The couple made their decision hours after Vital Shyshou, a 26-year-old Belarusian opponent, was found hanged in a park near his home in Kiev.

Ukrainian police said there were traces of beatings on his body, and his friends claim he was murdered by Belarusian security officers.

For his part, Lukashenko denied that Belarus played a role in Shyshou’s death and said he believed Tsimanouskaya had been “manipulated” in his decision by “outside forces”.

Rule of law “collapse”

Since its independence in 1991, none of the elections in Belarus have been deemed free and fair by international observers, and each has been accompanied by a violent crushing of dissent.

But last year’s rallies – and Lukashenko’s response – were on an unprecedented scale.

They attracted as many as 200,000 people and lasted for weeks, crippling urban centers and causing strikes among workers in state-run factories, Lukashenko’s main supporters.

Some 30,000 protesters were arrested, rights groups said, and thousands were reportedly beaten.

Seven people were shot dead during the protests or died shortly after, according to independent media.

“What we have seen over time since [the election], is a complete collapse of the rule of law in the country and the beginning of the end for the Lukashenko regime, ”Ivar Dale, senior policy adviser to the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, an oversight body, told Al Jazeera Rights.

But the protesters did not have a charismatic and determined leader.

Presidential hopeful and political newbie Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who came second in last year’s poll with 10 percent of the vote, has fled to neighboring Lithuania, and older and more seasoned opposition figures did not dare to return to Belarus after their exile.

Economic turbulence

Despite being sanctioned by the West for its response to last year’s protests and politically cornered, Lukashenko’s Belarus still keeps its head economically above water.

Last year, many experts predicted an economic crisis, but the post-pandemic economic boom saw the prices of Belarus’ major exports – potash fertilizers, oil and food – soar.

Belarus has Soviet-era chemical plants and two giant oil processing plants that work on Russian crude at a discount.

Its burgeoning IT sector, which has received tax breaks and other benefits, is also thriving even though many companies and programmers have fled the country amid the crackdown.

However, 2022 could be much more damaging, experts warn.

“Next year a prolonged recession of the Belarusian economy could begin, [coupled with] stagflation if the inflation factor is added, ”Kiev-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.

He also said that Russia had cut its subsidies to Minsk from 5 percent of Belarusian gross domestic product (GDP) to around 2 percent.

For decades Belarus has been dependent on multibillion loans from Russia and sent most of its exports to its giant eastern neighbor, where hundreds of thousands of Belarusians work in construction and agriculture. .


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