“Stop being afraid”, dissident athlete tells Belarusians

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Warsaw (AFP)

A Belarusian sprinter whose Cold War-style defection during the Olympics gripped the world on Monday urged her fellow citizens to follow her example and speak out against the regime.

In an interview with AFP on the occasion of the first anniversary of a contested presidential election in Belarus, Krystsina Tsimanouskaya said Belarus was “no longer a safe country for its own citizens”.

“People are afraid to go to demonstrations because they are afraid of being beaten, they are afraid of ending up in prison,” said the 24-year-old, speaking in a Warsaw office of the Belarusian pro-opposition sports solidarity foundation. (BSSF).

“I would like my country to be free, I would like every citizen to have the right to freedom of expression, for everyone to be able to live a normal life and stop being afraid,” she said.

Belarus has been rocked by unprecedented mass protests against strongman Alexander Lukashenko’s regime since he claimed victory in the August 9 elections which the opposition claimed were rigged in his favor.

– Return only to Belarus “free” –

Tsimanouskaya, who appeared calm but tense during the interview, said she would like to return to Belarus to her family one day, but “only when it is safe and free”.

When asked if this meant that Lukashenko should no longer be in power, she replied: “It can probably only be free without him”.

Tsimanouskaya fell out with her coaches during the Olympics and accused them of trying to force her home on August 1.

She turned to the Japanese police for help and then obtained a humanitarian visa from Poland, who accommodated her at its embassy in Tokyo and airlifted her to Warsaw under diplomatic protection.

Tsimanouskaya said what persuaded her to contact the police was a phone call from her grandmother in Belarus when she was already on her way to Tokyo airport.

“She called me and told me that I should not come back to Belarus and that I should do everything possible not to come back,” she said.

The athlete said she feared that if she returned she would end up “in a mental clinic or in jail”.

Also speaking at a press conference on Monday, Lukashenko accused the sprinter of being “controlled” by Warsaw.

She responded by saying that was “absolutely wrong” and that her actions had not been planned in advance, adding: “I asked for help myself at the very last minute.”

Two Belarusian coaches were later stripped of their credentials by the International Olympic Committee, which is conducting a wider investigation into the incident.

– ‘Watch the next Olympic Games’ –

Tsimanouskaya said she did not regret what she had done because “I do not regret showing the truth to the world”.

“Maybe all these years of sport have made me stronger… I won’t let anyone disrespect me,” said the athlete.

She said she believed there were other people in the same situation as her and urged them to “muster enough courage” to leave Belarus.

The BSSF says there are seven athletes jailed in Belarus as political prisoners and 36 professional athletes and coaches who have been sacked from national teams for their opinions.

Tsimanouskaya is currently auctioning the silver medal she won at the 2019 European Games in Minsk on eBay to raise money for the foundation to help other athletes.

The auction for the medal on Monday at 2:00 p.m. GMT was $ 20,000 (17,000 euros).

Asked about her own sporting future, she replied that nothing was certain but that the Polish authorities were helping her and she hopes she can be allowed to run for another national team.

“I am watching the next Olympics. I would like to participate in it.”