Features 6th April 2021

Criminal case against founders of Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation

The Investigative Committee of the Republic of Belarus (СкРБ) has opened a criminal case against the founders of the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation (BSSF). However, the actions of the State highlight that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was right to maintain sanctions against the Belarus Olympic Committee (НокРБ), after it appointed the son of a politician alleged to have staged an unfair election as its new President.

In a statement, the СкРБ alleges that Aliaksandra Herasimenia (Александры Герасимени) and Aleksandr Opeykin (Александра Опейкина), the Chair and Executive Director of the BSSF, ‘disseminated deliberately false information’ and ‘appealed to foreign states and international organisations to take actions aimed at causing harm to the national security of the Republic of Belarus’. The СкРБ alleges that through the actions of the BSSF, the duo caused ‘a number of major sporting events’ scheduled to be hosted by Belarus to be postponed, causing ‘significant image and financial damage’. It alleges that this damaged Belarus’s ‘prestige in the international and political arena’, as well as discrediting the country’s sport’s leadership. It adds that the maximum punishment is five years imprisonment.

Background

In December 2020, the IOC decided to exclude all representatives of the НокРБ from Olympic events, deciding that ‘the current NOC leadership has not appropriately protected the Belarusian athletes from political discrimination’. The IOC Decision reveals that it received ‘worrying reports’ from a number of organisations, including the BSSF, detailing action taken against athletes who protested against the August 2020 e-election of Alexander Lukashenko (Алякса́ндр Лукашэ́нка) in a process the European Parliament described as ‘seriously flawed’.

Lukashenko was President of the НокРБ until February 26 this year, when he was replaced by his son, Viktor (Виктор Лукашенко). On 8 March, the IOC announced that it would not recognise Viktor as President of the НокРБ and its provisional measures would remain in place. 

The BSSF was formed in August 2020 during widespread protests against the Belarusian elections. In October, over 800 athletes signed an Open Letter condemning violence used against protestors. The BSSF says that many athletes who took part in the protests or signed the Open Letter have experienced various forms of retaliation.

This included the 15 day detention of Yelena Leuchanka (Алена Леўчанка) due to the basketball player’s participation in the protests (see below). A BSSF page details how other athletes have lost their jobs or have been excluded from the national team either due to their participation in the protests, or because they signed the Open Letter.

 

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A post shared by Yelena Leuchanka OLY (@yelenaleu)

Many events scheduled to take place in Belarus have either been postponed or cancelled, either partly or wholly because of the Covid-19 pandemic. In September 2020, the International Skating Union (ISU) cancelled the first Junior World Cup Speed Skating competition, but it is understood that this was because of the pandemic. The political situation in Belarus wasn’t mentioned as a reason.

In October 2020, Covid-19 was blamed for the cancellation of the Minsk European Fencing Championships, reported InsideTheGames. In January this year, the international modern pentathlon union (UPIM) postponed its June 2021 Pentathlon and Laser Run World Championships, citing ‘instability in host nation’ as a reason. However, the Championships will still be hosted in Minsk at a later date.

A similar reason was given alongside Covid-19 as the International Ice Hockey Federation’s (IIHF) reason for removing Minsk as co-host of the 2021 World Championships. In February, UEFA moved the 2020/21 Futsal Champions League finals from Belarus to Croatia, due to the ‘epidemiological situation’ [Covid-19] and ‘travel restrictions’. 

Irony

The Sports Integrity Initiative could not find a single event that has been postponed or cancelled solely due to the actions of the BSSF. The IOC initially took action against Belarus as a result of issues highlighted by the BSSF, athletes, and other organisations. The local Olympic Committee responded by appointing Viktor Lukashenko, son of the President who won the controversial election. If any sporting events were postponed due to the political situation in the country, it could be argued that the local Olympic Committee’s actions were the cause, rather than the actions of the BSSF. 

The investigative committee (СкРБ) charging the two BSSF athletes is headed by Dmitry Gora (Дмитрий Гора), a former KGB (КГБ) officer. He also served as Deputy Prosecutor General under Lukashenko from December 2019 until 11 March 2021, when he was appointed to lead the СкРБ.

Gora has also been appointed to lead an interdepartmental commission of the Belarus General Prosecutor’s Office tasked with investigating mistreatment complaints from protesters, reports NashaNiva. ‘The General Prosecutor’s Office receives applications regarding compliance with the rule of law during mass events in August this year’, read an August statement‘Please be informed that a legal assessment will be given on the facts reported by the applicants’. 

If the above is accurate, it would appear to present a clear conflict of interests. To sum up, a former Deputy Prosecutor General tasked with handling complaints from protestors is also in charge of prosecuting Herasimenia and Opeykin for highlighting State action taken against athlete protestors. As such, the case against the two BSSF athletes appears to underline the IOC’s reasons for maintaining sanctions against the Belarusian Olympic Committee.

It also appears to contradict the Belarus Olympic committee’s criticism of the IOC Decision to maintain sanctions against it. ‘We strongly believe that this Decision is of a purely political nature and thus runs afoul of the principle “sports and politics do not mix”’, read a March statement. This from an Olympic committee that appointed the son of a politician alleged to have staged an unfair election, which has yet to comment on State attempts to sanction athletes for highlighting State action against them.

The attempt to charge Herasimenia and Opeykin with a criminal offence is remarkably similar to a past State attempt to silence a whistleblower. In June 2016, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (SKR or Sledcom) launched a criminal investigation against Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, former Director of the Moscow Laboratory. Despite continued enquiries from The Sports Integrity Initiative, the SKR has never outlined if or when this criminal investigation will be completed.

Herasimenia has put her Gold medal in the 50m freestyle, which she won at the Istanbul 2012 international swimming federation (FINA) World Championships, up for sale on eBay in order to continue financing the BSSF (see right). The medal features a black ribbon, understood to symbolise the country’s political prisoners.

‘The actions of the authorities before, during and after the elections showed that the authorities are afraid of healthy, athletic, morally stable and sensible people’, said Herasimenia in a video and statement posted on Instagram (below). ‘Two days ago, on 2 April [when the criminal investigation was launched], the authorities officially recognised their fear of people who lead an active and healthy lifestyle.

‘They are afraid of the healthy lifestyle culture, of those who do exercises in the morning, stand in the bar at lunchtime, work out in the gym and instead of alcohol and cigarettes they buy new trainers to get faster on the treadmill, in the stadium or just in the park […] The authorities are afraid of people who instil not only Olympic values, the principles of fair play, but also the habit of making their bodies healthier and more harmonious, and in life they strive for an honest victory.

‘From a healthy, intelligent, strong-willed person, it is impossible to make an obedient slave, intoxicated by the cheap products of Belarusian distilleries and tobacco factories. After all, if Belarusians stop smoking and drinking alcohol, someone at the top may lose a serious amount of money. It seems we have found this “Kascheyevo egg” [similar to ‘achilles heel’]. There is no need to wait for European or American sanctions, everything is literally in our hands.’ 

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