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Activists: Belarus sprinter plans to seek asylum in Poland

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, of Belarus, runs in the women's 100-meter run at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 30, 2021. Tsimanouskaya alleged her Olympic team tried to remove her from Japan in a dispute that led to a standoff Sunday, Aug. 1, at Tokyo’s main airport. An activist group supporting Tsimanouskaya said she believed her life was in danger in Belarus and would seek asylum with the Austrian embassy in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

TOKYO (AP) — A Belarusian Olympic sprinter plans to seek asylum in Poland after alleging that officials tried to force her home from Japan and that she feared for her safety, an activist group said Monday.

Athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya is applying for a visa at the Polish embassy in Tokyo, according to Vadim Krivosheyev, of the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation. He told The Associated Press that the group has bought her a plane ticket to Warsaw for Aug. 4.

The current standoff apparently began after Tsimanouskaya criticized how officials were managing her team. Tsimanouskaya, who was due to run in the Olympic 200-meter heats Monday, said on her Instagram account that she was put in the 4×400 relay even though she has never raced the event.

Tsimanouskaya said in a filmed message distributed on social media that she was pressured by Belarus team officials and asked the International Olympic Committee for help.

“I was put under pressure and they are trying to forcibly take me out of the country without my consent,” the 24-year-old runner said.

Belarus’ authoritarian government has engaged in a brutal crackdown on dissent after a presidential election a year ago triggered a wave of unprecedented mass protests. Authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has relentlessly pursued dissidents, including recently allegedly diverting a plane to Minsk to have one arrested.

The sports foundation said government supporters targeted Tsimanouskaya, and the athlete contacted the group for help.

“The campaign was quite serious and that was a clear signal that her life would be in danger in Belarus,” Alexander Opeikin, a spokesman for the BSSF, told the AP in an interview.

Tsimanouskaya summoned Japanese police at Haneda Airport and did not board a flight departing for Istanbul. Foreign ministry officials arrived later at the airport, Opeikin said.

Underscorign the seriousness of the allegations, several groups and countries say they are helping the runner. Poland and the Czech Republic offered help, and Japan’s Foreign Ministry said it was working with the International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo Olympics organizers.

The IOC, which has been in dispute with the Belarus National Olympic Committee ahead of the Tokyo Games, said it had intervened.

“The IOC … is looking into the situation and has asked the NOC for clarification,” it said in a statement.

Many critics of Belarus’ government have fled to Poland. Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz said on Twitter that Tsimanouskaya has been offered a “humanitarian visa and is free to pursue her sporting career in Poland if she so chooses.”

Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek also tweeted that the Czech Republic has offered her asylum.

“If she decides to accept it, we’ll do our maximum to help her,” he wrote.

The Belarus National Olympic Committee has been led for more than 25 years by President Lukashenko and his son, Viktor.

Both Lukashenkos are banned from the Tokyo Olympics by the IOC, which investigated complaints from athletes that they faced reprisals and intimidation in fallout from protests since last August after the country’s disputed presidential election.

A spokeswoman for the Belarus Olympic team did not respond to a request for comment.

In May, Belarussian authorities were accused of diverting a passenger plane to Minsk in order to detain journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend.

The elder Lukashenko maintained that there was a bomb threat against the plane and that’s why a fighter jet was scrambled to force it to land, but European Union leaders denounced it as an act of air piracy.

Pratasevich, who ran a channel on a messaging app used to organize demonstrations against Lukashenko’s rule, left his homeland in 2019 to try to escape the reach of the Belarusian KGB and ended up in Lithuania.

Tsimanouskaya already competed for Belarus on the first day of track events Friday at the National Stadium in Tokyo. She placed fourth in her first-round heat in the 100 meters, timing 11.47 seconds, and did not advance.