Slippery slope: IIHF head Fasel meets Lukashenko as protests continue
This is a developing story, please check back for updates. Last updated at 12:30 pm PST January 13, 2021.
Ice Hockey World Championship is scheduled to take place on May 21-June 6. Belarus and Latvia are expected to co-host the event. However, since the widely disputed August 9th presidential election in Belarus and the brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters that followed afterward, the championship co-host status for Belarus is now unknown.
Back in August of 2020, Latvia has released an official statement threatening to withdraw from the championship unless Belarus is replaced. Moreover, after the death of an activist Raman Bandarenka, Latvia also banned Belarus Ice Hockey Federation chairman Dzmitry Baskau along with Belarusian kickboxer Dzmitry Shakuta from entering the country, amid the suspicions of their alleged involvement in Bondarenko’s death.
“Based on Section 61, Paragraph 2 of the Immigration Law, I have made a decision regarding the inclusion of two Belarusian citizens in the list of persons undesirable to the Republic of Latvia, establishing a ban on entering Latvia for an indefinite period of time. To quote a classic: ‘We don’t need hockey like that!'” said the Foreign Minister.
According to human rights organizations, over 31,000 people have been detained since the protests have started in August, which is considered the largest number in Europe within the past 40 years. There are over 500 documented cases of torture, and at least 8 protesters were killed. As of January 13, 2021, 178 people in Belarus are considered political prisoners.
Since 1994, Belarus is ruled by Alexander Lukashenko, also known as the “Last Dictator in Europe.” For the past 26 years, none of the Belarusian elections have been recognized as either free or fair. After the widely disputed presidential election of August 9, 2020, mass protests started across the country and abroad. All political opponents of the incumbent president have been either put in jail or forced into exile. However, the protest continued even without the leaders.
During his time in Minsk, Mr. Fasel attended several informal meetings, which included Mr. Lukashenko and Mr. Baskau. After the photos were posted online, the public outrage multiplied into thousands of letters along with comments in the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) social media. January 12, a petition has been started, calling the IIHF to withdraw the championship from Belarus amid political controversy, human rights violations and continued civil unrest. In less than a day, it already gathered 50,000 signatures.
Amid growing controversy and calls for Mr. Fasel himself to resign from his position, today he tried to clarify some of the things that happened in Minsk.
“Our position is this: the 2017 IIHF Congress awarded the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship to Minsk/Riga and the IIHF has entered into a trilateral contract with the respective Minsk/Riga Organizing Committees to deliver this Championship. This objective has not changed, but a lot of other things have: the IIHF is deeply concerned over the capability of the organizer in Minsk to deliver the tournament safely in a COVID-19 environment, there is an ongoing investigation by the IIHF into the Belarusian Ice Hockey Association President, and there is unrest within the country that has significantly impacted tournament preparations and raised a number of justifiable concerns from teams, fans, and government officials,” Fasel stated.
According to Fasel, there were specific requirements that the government should fulfill in order for the World Championship to take place in Minsk. These included improving the socio-political situation within the country, and allowing all Belarusian athletes the opportunity to return to and compete in their respective sports. Additionally, the IIHF Disciplinary Board has opened its own investigation into the Belarusian Ice Hockey Association (BIHA) President Dzmitry Baskau and his possible involvement in Roman Bondarenko’s death.
Meanwhile, despite the fines, mass arrests and repressions, Belarusians continue their peaceful protest, until the victory. Amid the harsh winter, the rising COVID-19 death toll and brutal police violence, the protest takes different shapes and forms, but it does remain persistent daily. Check out our video of some of the recent rallies that took place across the country over the past weekend.
The US, EU, Canada, Great Britain, Ukraine and others have not recognized Mr. Lukashenko as a legitimate president. However, relying heavily on the support from Moscow and state police and security forces, he has rejected any kind of real dialogue between the government and the nation. The main demand of the protesters stays the same — resignation of Mr. Lukashenko and new, fair elections. However, the intention of Mr. Lukashenko to stay in power by any means didn’t change either.
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