In the latest plot twist in the diplomatic stand-off unfolding on the sidelines of Tokyo 2020, Krystsina Tsimanouskaya boarded a flight to Vienna but is expected to head to Poland, where she has been offered a humanitarian visa.
Belarusian Olympic athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya left Japan on a Vienna-bound flight, but was expected to head for Poland, where she was offered a humanitarian visa.
The 24-year-old sprinter had been expected to take a direct flight to Warsaw on Wednesday, but switched at the last minute out of security concerns, an airport official told reporters.
She boarded the flight at Narita airport outside Tokyo after travelling from the Polish embassy where she had spent the past two nights following claims her team tried to force her to return home after she criticised her coaches.
Tsimanouskaya declined to speak to the media at the airport, and her flight took off shortly after 11 am local time (0200 GMT).
The fact that information about what flight she was taking from Tokyo was widely known raised some security concerns, a Polish government source said.
"We were aware that many people know about the plane ... The problem was that the information was disseminated very widely and it raised some security concerns," the source said.
The source said they had to be careful after what happened to the Ryanair flight over Belarus.
Lukashenka named himself head of #Belarus National Olympic Committee for 23 years. When forced to step down this year, his son Viktor took his place.— Minky Worden (@MinkysHighjinks) August 3, 2021
What chance do athletes have within this unequal power structure to advocate for their own human rights?https://t.co/39smToKgT6 pic.twitter.com/H86N7xpHQL
Crackdown on dissent in Belarus
The sprinter sought protection from Tokyo 2020 officials on Sunday, claiming she was being forced to return to Belarus, which has been wracked by political upheaval and a crackdown on dissent after disputed elections that returned strongman Alexander Lukashenko to power last year.
Belarus was then rocked by months of protests, the largest of which drew up to 200,000, to which the authorities responded with a massive clampdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police. Leading opposition figures have been jailed or forced to leave the country.
Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 27 years, has denounced his opponents as foreign stooges and accused the US and its allies of plotting to overthrow his government.
"Another act of transnational repression"
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.
Her husband has now fled to Ukraine and the pair are expected to meet up in Poland, which is a staunch critic of Lukashenko's regime and has become home to a growing number of dissidents.
Tsimanouskaya arrived in Poland's embassy on Monday evening following a night spent in an airport hotel.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Tuesday he had spoken to the "courageous" Tsimanouskaya, who is "currently well taken care of and safe".
"I assured her that she can count on the support and solidarity of Poland. In the coming days, she will fly to Warsaw, where she will be able to thrive without obstacles and, if she so chooses, will receive further assistance," he wrote on Facebook.
The International Olympic Committee has said it will investigate Belarus's Olympic team over the incident, but activists have called for the country's Olympic committee to be suspended and its athletes to compete as neutrals.
Spokesman Mark Adams said Wednesday that the IOC had received a report from Belarus's Olympic committee, which was "being evaluated."
And he said the IOC has opened a disciplinary commission "to establish facts in this case".
"@Olympics will go on w/athletes who had to sign indemnity waivers to compete, who are investigated for expressing themselves on a podium, and who will only ever see a sliver of the profits. It’s not so much that the #IOC protects its athletes.. It’s that it protects itself." 4/4— Global Athlete (@GlobalAthleteHQ) August 3, 2021
NGO Global Athlete said Tsimanouskaya's "alleged kidnapping... is yet another example of the alarming athlete abuse occurring in Belarus".
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."
The alleged attempt to return Tsimanouskaya to Belarus has prompted condemnation, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accusing Lukashenko's government of "another act of transnational repression".
Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, sparked international outrage in May by dispatching a fighter jet to intercept a Ryanair plane flying from Greece to Lithuania to arrest a dissident onboard.
Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski seemed to reference that incident when he declined to confirm whether Tsimanouskaya would fly out on Wednesday as had been rumoured, citing safety.
Shocked by reports that Belarus activist Vital Shyshou has been found hanged in a Kyiv park. He helped many flee the Lukashenko regime’s repression. Commend Ukrainian authorities for quickly opening an investigation into his death, incl his possible murder.— Josep Borrell Fontelles (@JosepBorrellF) August 3, 2021
Justice must be done.
Belarusian dissident found hanged in Ukraine
The Olympic saga came as police in Ukraine said a missing Belarusian activist, whose NGO helps his compatriots flee the country, had been found hanged in a park in Kiev.
Police said they had opened a murder probe and would pursue all leads including "murder disguised as suicide", while activists accused authorities of "an operation... to liquidate a Belarusian who presented a true danger to the regime".
The United Nations has called on Ukrainian authorities to conduct a "thorough, impartial and effective investigation" into the death.