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Belarusian Sprinter Is Seeking Asylum In Poland Rather Than Return Home

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

An Olympic sprinter from Belarus has landed in Austria on her to way to seek political asylum in Poland. Krystsina Tsimanouskaya criticized her coaches on social media. She did not criticize the authoritarian government of Belarus. Nevertheless, on Sunday, she claims she was forced to go to the airport in Japan, where she refused to get on a flight home. She sought help from the Polish Embassy and got a humanitarian visa. Heather McGill is a researcher with Amnesty International who's written about how Belarus treats its athletes. And she says what happened to Tsimanouskaya is actually quite common.

HEATHER MCGILL: What happened to her, obviously, is a personal dilemma. It was a very difficult choice for her. She's having to leave her country, abandon her career in Belarus, start over again. But actually what happened to her is the tip of the iceberg compared to what's going on in Belarus every day. Thousands of people have been detained for taking part in peaceful protests, and dozens of people are facing criminal charges for having spoken out or for having helped people or for having taken part in human rights activities. It basically demonstrates the inhumanity of the authorities of Belarus and their total disregard for human rights, particularly the right to freedom of expression.

MARTINEZ: Now, we spoke to the former captain of the Belarus national basketball team Katsiaryna Snytsina. She started speaking out about politics last year during elections in Belarus. And then she was asked to sign a contract requiring all her public statements to be vetted by the ministry of sport. She said no.

KATSIARYNA SNYTSINA: It's going all against my human rights, constitution rights, you know? So I disagree. I say I will not sign it. And that's how I finished my career on national team.

MARTINEZ: She's now based in Turkey and says she fears for her family in Belarus.

Heather, what kind of punishment do dissident athletes face in Belarus?

MCGILL: Well, to date, 95 athletes have been detained for taking part in peaceful protests. Seven of those have been charged with political offenses for their peaceful opposition to the government, and 124 have suffered other forms of repression. So this includes being dropped from the national team, being threatened, being harassed, various forms of pressure - because sport is very important to President Lukashenko. It's always been a very important part of his propaganda. So I think when athletes speak out about the terrible human rights violations going on in the country, it really cuts to the quick, and they suffer reprisals.

MARTINEZ: Does the Belarusian government think it's a sign of lack of control? Or what's the thinking with them?

MCGILL: Well, at the moment, the Belarusian government is seeking absolute control over every aspect of life in the country. They have closed down almost every civil society organization that exists in the country. They have clamped down on every form of expression of any views that are not official views, and there is no freedom of assembly. So, yes, they seek total control.

MARTINEZ: Now, Poland has granted Tsimanouskaya a humanitarian visa. If she winds up making it to Poland or, say, another country, would she be completely safe from Belarusian authorities?

MCGILL: Well, yes. I say a qualified yes because, as you might be aware, a Belarusian immigrant was found dead in Kyiv. We don't know the circumstances of that death.

MARTINEZ: Kyiv, Ukraine.

MCGILL: Yes, that's correct. And we do know that the Belarusian regime reaches beyond its borders. We saw the downing of the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius. That involved, you know, a plane load of people who had no connection to Belarus who found themselves landing in Minsk just for the arrest of one person.

MARTINEZ: Heather, do you think the International Olympic Committee should allow countries with repressive governments to even compete in the Olympic Games?

MCGILL: I should say, first of all, that Amnesty's job is to expose human rights violations and to leave it up to governments to make their choices as to what they do with that information. But we do call for sanctions against Belarus and do call for governments to take very stern measures with regard to Belarus.

MARTINEZ: That's Heather McGill, researcher with Amnesty International.

Heather, thank you very much.

MCGILL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.