Aliaksandra Herasimenia: Belarus sentences Olympic medalist to 12 years for creating ‘extremist formation’

The former swimmer was handed a prison term in absentia after co-founding the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation and criticizing Lukashenko’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Aliaksandra Herasimenia of Belarus on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Women's 50m Freestyle at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Aliaksandra Herasimenia of Belarus on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Women's 50m Freestyle at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.Adam Pretty (Getty Images)

Former Olympic swimmer Aliaksandra Herasimenia, one of the most prominent Belarusian athletes of the last few decades, has been sentenced in absentia to 12 years in prison on charges of creating “an extremist formation,” according to the Viasna Human Rights Centre. Herasimenia, 36, a triple Olympic medalist (two silvers at London 2012 and a bronze in Rio de Janeiro in 2016), was sentenced by a court in Minsk at the conclusion of a trial that began on December 19, Viasna reported.

According to the NGO the swimmer, who retired in 2019 and lives in exile, was also found guilty of calling for “sanctions against Belarus,” and “spreading false information” about events in 2020 during the unprecedented protests against the fraudulent re-election of President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 in country often described as Europe’s last dictatorship. Herasimenia has also been accused of carrying out actions that “place national security at risk.”

Following the protests of 2020, Herasimenia signed an open letter together with other Belarusian athletes demanding “free elections” and helped to co-found the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, which provides financial and legal assistance for Belarusian athletes persecuted by the state, which considers the organization an “extremist formation.”

In April 2021, Herasimenia auctioned her 2012 Istanbul World Championships gold medal for €13,500 ($14,345) to raise funds for opposition athletes. In early 2022, the Olympian also publicly criticized Lukashenko’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Ukraine has never been our enemy, they are a brotherly people,” Herasimenia said during the early days of the war, when she was in Kyiv. Shortly afterward, she and her family left Ukraine to cross the Polish border. She now lives in exile in Vilnius.

In addition to Herasimenia, the Minsk tribunal sentenced Alexandr Opeinik, another of the founders of the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, to 12 years in absentia, according to state-run news agency Belta.

In a separate case, the court handed down a four-year sentence to Alexander Yarochouk, a prominent union representative, for “seriously undermining public order” during the 2020 protests, Viasna said in a statement.

Over the past two years, the authorities in Belarus have been carrying out a severe crackdown against any resistance to the Lukashenko regime, jailing many leading opposition figures or forcing them into exile.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS