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September 19, 2021
International World

Belarusian Sprinter Who Feared for Her Safety Is Offered Asylum in Poland

TOKYO — Kristina Timanovskaya, the Belarusian Olympic sprinter who sought protection at a Tokyo airport as her nation tried to forcibly send her home from the Summer Games, has been offered asylum in Poland.

Timanovskaya, 24, entered the Polish Embassy in Tokyo on Monday and will fly to Warsaw on Wednesday, according to Alexander Opeikin, the executive director of the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Fund, a group that opposes the Belarusian government.

Marcin Przydacz, the deputy foreign minister of Poland, confirmed on Twitter that Timanovskaya had received a humanitarian visa.

Timanovskaya had said she feared for her safety in Belarus after she criticized her coaches and the country’s national committee for registering her for a relay event for which she had not trained.

She had originally been scheduled to run a heat of the 200 meters, one of her regular races, on Monday but instead spent the day seeking a new country in which to settle.

“She is OK. She’s a little bit disappointed because she wanted to continue in the Olympic Games,” Opeikin, who has been in contact with Timanovskaya since the events unfolded Sunday, said by telephone.

“She’s disappointed she couldn’t compete in the 200 meters today, but she understands the whole situation, she understands her rights, she understands the deep violations of her rights as an athlete, of her human rights,” he said. “She needs to tell the whole world about this situation.”

The asylum offers capped nearly 24 hours of drama at the Olympics, where Timanovskaya had placed fourth in her heat in the 100 meters Friday. She then said on Instagram that her coaches had informed her at the last minute that she would have to run the 4×400-meter relay in place of a team member who had not taken enough anti-doping tests to qualify for the event.

Although her criticisms were about athletic decisions, Timanovskaya had good reason to fear that she would be treated as a political dissident in Belarus.

The chairman of the country’s national Olympic committee is the eldest son of Alexander Lukashenko, the strongman leader who has held power in Belarus for 27 years. He has long sought to stifle any dissent, including with a brutal crackdown that began a year ago after a disputed presidential election.

Lukashenko is not afraid to take drastic measures on the international stage. In May, Belarusian authorities forced down a Ryanair plane flying to Vilnius, Lithuania, from Athens that was carrying Roman Protasevich, a blogger for a website that helped direct anti-government protesters last year.

Even before Timanovskaya’s case, Belarus had a tangled relationship with the International Olympic Committee. In December, the committee barred Lukashenko and his son from attending the Tokyo Games. A group of athletes had said that they had become victims of political discrimination and imprisonment for speaking out against the government.

The IOC allowed the country to send a 103-member team to the Games because it said it did not want to punish innocent athletes.

At a news conference Monday morning, Mark Adams, spokesman for the IOC, said at first that Timanovskaya had merely gone to the airport with other athletes who had finished their events.

But when pressed about the fact that she had been taken to the airport even though she had not completed her own competitions, he said the IOC was awaiting a report from the Belarusian National Olympic Committee.

In the meantime, he said, reporters would “have to take my word for it” that Timanovskaya was being protected. Adams said that she had talked with the Tokyo police as well as with officials from the agency of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Masa Takaya, the spokesman for the Tokyo organizing committee, said that Timanovskaya had spent Sunday night in a hotel near Haneda Airport in Tokyo. A spokesman for the Haneda police said the department would not speak to foreign journalists.

After posting her complaints on Instagram, Timanovskaya accused the Belarusian Olympic committee of kidnapping her from the Olympic Village and taking her to the airport.

Belarusian journalists at the Games said they had been told that Timanovskaya missed a bus meant to transport her to the airport with other athletes who had completed their events. They said she was taken to Haneda Airport in a separate car, accompanied by one of her coaches.

The Belarusian committee said it had withdrawn her from the Games because of her “emotional and psychological state.”

But in a complaint filed with an Olympic sports court by the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Fund, her supporters said they had a copy of an audio recording in which members of the coaching staff had told Timanovskaya that she was being withdrawn from the Games because of her Instagram post.

The complaint said the video offered proof that the official explanation from the Belarusian delegation was “fake” and violated her rights under the IOC’s charter to participate in the Games.

“Consequently, it is the case of pure discrimination” against Timanovskaya for “political reasons,” the complaint said.

The events unfolded chaotically Sunday night at Haneda Airport. Track and field officials were stunned to first hear of Timanovskaya’s declaration through news media reports.

Sebastian Coe, president of the governing body known as World Athletics, managed to rouse the most senior official responsible for Belarus’ track delegation, who was in Sapporo, Japan, ahead of the marathon.

According to people familiar with the matter, that official told Coe that Belarusian officials maintained that Timanovskaya had decided to leave the Olympics voluntarily after being told she would have to run the 4×400-meter relay on top of her usual events.

At the airport Sunday night, a Japanese lawyer who specializes in refugee cases, Koichi Kodama, said he had heard from a group of lawyers that one had tried to meet with Timanovskaya at the airport but was denied access by the police. Taiga Ishikawa, a member of the Japanese parliament and secretary-general of its refugee committee, also tried to visit Timanovskaya but was unable to see her.

It turned out that Timanovskaya had other options. On Twitter, the prime minister of Slovenia, Janez Jansa, said Timanovskaya was “welcome” in his country. Jakub Kulhanek, the Czech foreign minister, said that his country was also willing to help. Gabrielius Landsbergis, the foreign minister of Lithuania, said that his country, too, had offered Timanovskaya a home.

There were reasons for Timanovskaya to apply for asylum outside Japan, which is generally inhospitable to asylum-seekers.

Although the Japanese government extended temporary asylum in June to Ko Pyae Lyan Aung, a soccer player for the Myanmar national team, Japan offered asylum to only 47 people last year, less than 1% of applicants. Its immigration system has also been roiled by the death in March of an emaciated Sri Lankan migrant in a detention cell.

Japan does not have a significant relationship with Belarus. So in the case of Timanovskaya, said Kazuhiko Togo, a former Japanese diplomat, “we don’t have any particular reason to put her human rights below any diplomatic political agenda.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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