Poland on Monday granted a humanitarian visa to Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who says her team’s officials tried to forcibly send her back to her authoritarian homeland from the Olympic Games in Japan.
A virtual unknown until the weekend, the 24-year-old finds herself at the centre of a major scandal after criticising the Belarusian athletics federation for entering her into a relay race in Tokyo without giving her notice.
Tsimanouskaya’s treatment recalled the Soviet practice of forcing disloyal athletes home and quickly sparked political uproar.
Tsimanouskaya said she feared Belarus was no longer safe for her, and several countries, including Poland, offered to host her.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki slammed the “criminal attempt” to kidnap the athlete.
“We have made sure that Krystsina Tsimanouskaya is safe in the Polish embassy in Tokyo and we will, if necessary, offer her the possibility of continuing her career,” he wrote on Facebook.
Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz said that Warsaw has granted her a humanitarian visa.
Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko has been cracking down on any form of dissent since mass protests erupted after elections last year deemed unfair by the West.
Tsimanouskaya was one of more than 2,000 Belarusian sports figures who signed an open letter calling for new elections and for political prisoners to be freed.
The athlete was expected to stay at the Polish embassy in Tokyo until her departure to Warsaw, possibly as soon as Wednesday, Poland-based dissident Pavel Latushka wrote on Twitter.
Tsimanouskaya spent the night in an airport hotel after asking officials to help her avoid being flown back to Minsk.
She was supposed to compete in Monday’s 200 metres heats but instead became the subject of intense diplomatic wrangling.
Her husband Arseny Zdanevich told AFP he had fled Belarus and was hoping to join his wife “in the near future”.
“I believe it would not be safe for me to be there,” the 25-year-old fitness trainer said by phone from Ukraine.
Poland is a staunch critic of Lukashenko’s regime and has become home to a growing number of dissidents.
US Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher saluted Japanese and Polish officials, tweeting, “Tsimanouskaya is able to evade the attempts of the Lukashenko regime to discredit and humiliate this #Tokyo2020 athlete for expressing her views.”
The International Olympics Committee has said officials from the global human rights agency UNHCR were involved in the case.
– ‘Not safe‘ –
Tsimanouskaya told Belarusian sports website tribuna.com that her coach said her fate was being decided “not on the level of (the athletics federation), not on the level of the sports ministry, but much higher up”.
She said she feared Belarus “was not safe” for her anymore, after being given less than an hour to pack her things and escorted to the airport.
The Belarusian Olympic Committee, run by Lukashenko’s son Viktor, claimed the athlete was not in a psychological state to remain at the Games.
“We had signals that something is going on with the girl,” head coach Yuri Moisevich told Belarusian television, which has scorned the athlete.
The runner has said she has no psychological issues.
The IOC has demanded a full written account from the Belarus Olympic Committee.
Anatoly Kotov, Polish-based head of the Belarusian sports solidarity foundation’s international department, said supporters were trying to bring her to Poland safely.
“We are currently working to organise all the logistics,” he told AFP.
“We know that she is okay, she’s feeling fine and has been able to rest.”
Lukashenko — in power since 1994 — sparked international outrage in May by dispatching a fighter jet to intercept a Ryanair plane flying from Greece to Lithuania in order to arrest a dissident onboard.
Lukashenko and his son Viktor have been banned from Olympic events over the targeting of athletes for their political views.
Shortly before the Tokyo Games, Lukashenko warned sports officials and athletes that he expected results in Japan.
“Think about it before going,” he said. “If you come back with nothing, it’s better for you not to come back at all.”
Amnesty International said many athletes have been punished for speaking out against Lukashenko.
“It is not surprising that athletes who speak out find themselves a target for reprisals,” said Amnesty researcher Heather McGill.
Belarus’s exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya accused the regime of trying to “kidnap” Tsimanouskaya.