'We are on your side,' Boris Johnson tells Belarus opposition leader after activist found dead

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Exiled Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya met Boris Johnson in London on Tuesday - Bloomberg/Hollie Adams
Exiled Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya met Boris Johnson in London on Tuesday - Bloomberg/Hollie Adams

Boris Johnson promised Belarus' exiled opposition leader further support for her struggle against the regime of Alexander Lukashenko at a meeting on Tuesday but stopped short of committing to further sanctions.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced to flee the country after running against Mr Lukashenko at a rigged election in August last year, arrived at Downing Street on Tuesday after another opposition activist was found dead and an Olympic runner said she was seeking refuge in Poland for her own safety.

“I am sure we will get help” from the British government, Mrs Tsikhanouskaya told reporters ahead of the meeting.

Mr Johnson told her the British government was "very much on your side, we are very much supportive of what you are doing.”

According to Downing Street, Mr Johnson “outlined the steps the UK has taken to hold the regime to account, including placing sanctions on Lukashenko himself” over human rights violations but the statement offered no details of specific additional action.

“The Prime Minister and Mrs Tsikhanouskaya agreed that the British and Belarusian people share fundamental values such as a belief in democracy, human rights and rule of law. The Prime Minister said the UK stands in solidarity of the people of Belarus and will continue to take action to support them,” Downing Street said.

 Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who challenged Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's re-election in 2020
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who challenged Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's re-election in 2020

It added that Britain is tripling financial support for Belarusian civil society groups this year.

"It is very important to understand that one of the most powerful countries in the world is supporting Belarus," Mrs Tsikhanouskaya said after the meeting.

Mrs Tsikhaouskaya said the death of Vitaly Shishov, the founder of an NGO called Belarusian House, was suspicious but that she did not want to pre-empt the results of the Ukrainian police investigation.

Mr Shishov was found hanged in a park near his home in Kyiv early yesterday/TUE. Ukrainian police said they were investigating all avenues of enquiry, including a possible murder disguised as a suicide.

Belarus athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who claimed her team tried to force her to leave Japan following a row during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, walks with her luggage inside the Polish embassy where she was granted a humanitarian visa to Poland, in Tokyo on August 2, 2021. - A Belarusian Olympic athlete was sheltering in Poland's embassy in Tokyo on August 3, 2021 after being offered safe passage to Warsaw, as the US slammed her team's attempt to send her home. Krystsina Tsimanouskaya says she fears for her safety if she returns to Belarus, and claims her team attempted to force her onto a plane after she criticised her coaches. - Yuki IWAMURA/AFP via Getty Images
Belarus athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who claimed her team tried to force her to leave Japan following a row during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, walks with her luggage inside the Polish embassy where she was granted a humanitarian visa to Poland, in Tokyo on August 2, 2021. - A Belarusian Olympic athlete was sheltering in Poland's embassy in Tokyo on August 3, 2021 after being offered safe passage to Warsaw, as the US slammed her team's attempt to send her home. Krystsina Tsimanouskaya says she fears for her safety if she returns to Belarus, and claims her team attempted to force her onto a plane after she criticised her coaches. - Yuki IWAMURA/AFP via Getty Images

Olympic officials meanwhile came under intensifying pressure to suspend Belarus over its treatment of athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who sought the protection of Japanese police after team officials tried to force her onto a flight home on Sunday.

Ms Tsimanouskaya, 24, has been granted a Polish humanitarian visa and is expected to stay at the Polish embassy until she departs Japan on Wednesday.

But the furore deepened on Tuesday as Belarusian officials reportedly told her mother she had been recruited by foreign spies.

The Global Athlete, a pressure group representing the interests of international sportspeople, told Telegraph Sport the treatment of Ms Tsimanouskaya by the Belarus National Olympic Committee (NOC) is "yet another example of the alarming athlete abuse occurring in Belarus".

"For a year, Belarusian athletes and the Belarus Sport Solidarity Federation (BSSF) have been pleading with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to fully suspend their own Belarus NOC," a statement added. "To date, the IOC’s response and actions towards Belarus have been cursory at best."

Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya talks with police officers at Haneda international airport in Tokyo, Japan - ISSEI KATO /REUTERS
Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya talks with police officers at Haneda international airport in Tokyo, Japan - ISSEI KATO /REUTERS

The IOC has so far demanded that Belarus submit a full report on the situation by the end of Wednesday. "We need to establish the full facts," IOC Presidential spokesperson Mark Adams said. "That can take time... In the meantime, our first concern is for the welfare of the athlete."

Ms Tsimanouskaya was kicked out of the team over the weekend after she posted a video criticising its management.

The British government has imposed escalating sanctions on Mr Lukashenko and close associates since his security forces launched a bloody crackdown on opposition protests in the wake of the presidential poll.

In June it imposed further travel bans and asset freezes on senior figures after Mr Lukashenko’s security service forced a Ryanair flight to land in Minsk in order to arrest a journalist and his girlfriend.

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