'Stop being afraid', dissident athlete tells Belarusians

Warsaw (AFP) –


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

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

"People are afraid to go to any protests because they are afraid of getting beaten up, they are afraid of ending up in prison," said the 24-year-old, speaking in a Warsaw office of the pro-opposition Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation (BSSF).

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

Belarus has been shaken by unprecedented mass protests against strongman Alexander Lukashenko's regime ever since he claimed victory in an August 9 election which the opposition says was rigged in his favour.

- Return only to 'free' Belarus -

Tsimanouskaya, who appeared composed but tense during the interview, said she would one day like to return to Belarus to her family but "only when it will be safe and free".

Asked if that meant Lukashenko should no longer be in power, she answered: "It probably can only be free without him".

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

She turned to Japanese police for help and was then granted a humanitarian visa by Poland, which put her up at its embassy in Tokyo and flew her to Warsaw under diplomatic protection.

Tsimanouskaya has said that what persuaded her to reach out to the police was a phone call from her grandmother in Belarus while she was already on her way to Tokyo airport.

"She called me and said I should not come back to Belarus and I should do everything I could in order not to return," she said.

The athlete said she was afraid that if she returned she would end up "in a psychiatric clinic or in prison".

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

She responded by saying that it was "absolutely untrue" and that her actions had not been planned ahead of time, adding: "I reached out for help myself at the very last minute".

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

- 'Looking at the next Olympics' -

Tsimanouskaya said she had no regrets about what she did as "I don't regret showing the world the truth".

"Maybe all those years of sport have strengthened me... I won't allow anyone to disrespect me," said the athlete.

She said she believes there are others in the same situation as her and urged them to "gather 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 dismissed from national teams for their views.

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

The bid for the medal at 1400 GMT on Monday was $20,000 (17,000 euros).

Asked about her own sporting future, she said nothing was certain but Polish authorities were helping her and she hopes she can be allowed to run for a different national team.

"I'm looking at the next Olympics. I would like to take part."