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Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Poland grants visa to Belarus athlete seeking asylum

Polish official confirms first Tokyo Olympics defection

Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya talks with police officers at Haneda international airport in Tokyo on Sunday.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- A Belarusian athlete at the Tokyo Olympic Games has been granted a "humanitarian visa" by Poland, a senior official of the European country tweeted on Monday, after she expressed her desire to defect and entered the Polish embassy.

"Kryscina Tsimanouskaya a Belarusian athlet[e] is already in direct contact with Polish diplomats in Tokyo. She has received a humanitarian visa," tweeted Marcin Przydacz, the undersecretary of state for security at Poland's foreign ministry. "Poland will do whatever is necessary to help her to continue her sporting career." He added a picture of the Polish flag and tweeted after that image that "[Poland] always stands for Solidarity."

The sprinter Tsimanouskaya entered the Polish embassy in Tokyo on Monday evening, after seeking asylum at Tokyo's Haneda Airport on Sunday night, when she was due to board a plane back to Belarus. Poland was the first European country to respond.

"She was offered a humanitarian visa and is free to pursue her sporting career in Poland if she so chooses," Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz wrote on Twitter.

Tsimanouskaya was supposed to compete in the women's 200-meter race on Monday, but said she was removed from the Olympic Village by the Belarusian Olympic Committee after refusing to compete in the 4x400-meter relay.

"I am asking the International Olympic Committee for help. Pressure has been put on me and they are trying to take me out of the country without my consent, so I am asking the IOC to intervene," Tsimanouskaya said in a video posted Sunday.

Before being taken to the airport, Tsimanouskaya managed to call Anatoly Kotov of the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation, which supports athletes detained or persecuted for participating in anti-government demonstrations.

"They are ready to give her asylum status in Japan but Krystsina does not want to stay in Japan because she wants to be as close as possible to her family, Kotov told Nikkei Asia. "We truly appreciate the commitment of the Japanese authorities to keeping her safe."

Japan's foreign ministry declined to comment on the asylum offer.

Defections have long been a part of Olympic history, and host countries are often prepared for athletes seeking to abscond. But an offer of asylum would be a fast move for Japan, whose immigration laws are largely seen as unfriendly to refugees and asylum seekers. Japan lags behind its fellow advanced economies in refugee resettlements, accepting only 51 refugees in 2020 for a five-year total of 216.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya of Belarus reacts after competing in a 100m heat at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on Friday.   © Reuters

In May, the Japanese parliament shelved a bill that would have lifted automatic deportation stays and allowed law enforcement to repatriate asylum seekers whose applications are under appeal. Opposition to the bill mounted after the death of a Sri Lankan woman in March while in detention for overstaying her visa.

The 24-year-old Tsimanouskaya also received offers from the Czech Republic and Slovakia. "If she wishes for political asylum to a third country, it is going to be primarily a matter between her and that particular receiving country," the MOFA spokesperson said.

Athletes have used previous international competitions as an opportunity to flee war, persecution or authoritarian rule in their home countries. Over 80 athletes and officials applied for asylum in the U.K. during the 2012 London Games. Knowing this, North Korea assigned a minder to each of its 22 athletes at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.

The largest Olympic defection came from the Eastern bloc, when 48 Hungarian athletes escaped at the 1956 Melbourne Games as the Soviet Union invaded their country.

Belarusians have engaged in mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled for nearly three decades, since he claimed victory in last year's presidential election.

Neither Japan nor the IOC recognized the result of the election, which international observers said was "full of gaps and inconsistencies" and "severe restrictions to fundamental freedoms." The IOC banned Lukashenko and his son Viktor, head of the national Olympic committee, from attending the Tokyo Games, although organizers stopped short of suspending Belarusian athletes' participation.

Tsimanouskaya said on Instagram that she was forced to run the 4x400-meter relay, claiming that the Belarusian Olympic Committee failed to secure enough antidoping tests for the relay team.

"We see it as some sort of punishment for her criticism of their decision to engage her in one more discipline, which she was not ready to run," Kotov said.

According to Kotov, Belarusian officials gave Tsimanouskaya an hour to pack and told her she would be monitored from the Olympic Village to the airport.

As it could take days to arrange her transfer to Europe, Japan would have to extend her permit of stay, the U.N. refugee agency in Tokyo told Nikkei Asia.

In line with Tokyo's COVID precautions, Olympic athletes are allowed to enter Japan only five days before and leave within 48 hours after their competition. Athletes are also banned from leaving the Olympic Village and mingling with the general public to prevent infections.

Even before the Games opened, authorities apprehended a Ugandan athlete who fled his training camp to seek asylum in Japan. Weightlifter Julius Ssekitoleko was detained upon his return to Uganda on charges of fraud, but has since been released.

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