By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Belarus basketball star Yelena Leuchanka has twice represented her country at the Olympic Games, but until this year she had always stayed out of politics. That changed abruptly when her country was engulfed by protests.
When she joined a street demonstration against President Alexander Lukashenko, one of the country's best known athletes found herself arrested and jailed in a lice-ridden cell.
Released after 15 days, the former center who played four seasons in the U.S. Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) has added her name to an open letter of protest signed by nearly 1,000 Belarusian sports figures.
"I want us to be free in a new Belarus, where we can freely express our opinions and not be afraid to be fired, imprisoned, fined, beaten or intimidated for it," the 37-year-old Leuchanka told Reuters.
The open letter condemns the Aug. 9 presidential election won by Lukashenko as fraudulent and demands a re-run. It calls for the release of all those detained during more than 11 weeks of street protests and strikes against the veteran leader.
The athletes - including freestyle skier Hanna Huskova, who was the 2018 Olympic champion in aerials, and swimmer Aliaksandra Herasimenia, a three-time Olympic medallist - say they will stick together.
"If information emerges about attempts to pressure the sports representatives who have signed this letter, or threats to sack them or infringe their rights, all the athletes will act in solidarity including by potentially refusing to turn out for the national team," the letter says.
The Belarusian Olympic Committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The protest highlights how discontent has seeped even into social groups traditionally loyal to the state. In former Soviet countries, it is rare for elite athletes to publicly criticize the government, which often provides much of their funding.
"I think we are breaking stereotypes because for a very long time everyone thought that athletes are only athletes..., that we only train," said Leuchanka, who was detained at Minsk airport on Sept. 30 as she was about to fly to Greece for medical treatment.
"How can we remain silent when it is time for us to be fans of our people?"
Leuchanka says she had never even voted until this year. It was a combination of factors - Lukashenko's dismissive attitude to the coronavirus, the imprisonment or self-exile of other presidential candidates, and police violence against demonstrators - that compelled her to join the protests.
"I could just close my eyes to this, leave and live comfortably," she said. "But I can't."
"The people of Belarus woke up this summer. We wanted some changes, we wanted to try something new. We've been living under the same president for 26 years."
Standing a towering 196 cm (6 feet 5 inches) tall, Leuchanka was crammed into a Minsk prison cell with up to four other people, where she tried to keep fit with breathing exercises and squats.
With no mattress, flushing toilet or access to showers, she says she contracted lice and developed dermatitis all over her body. Her old athletics injuries flared up.
She finally flew to Greece last week to receive the treatment she had planned before her time in jail.
Reflecting on her ordeal, Leuchanka believes the authorities chose to make an example of a well-known professional athlete.
"I feel sorry for them," she told Reuters. "We (demonstrators) are in a prison, behind bars, but, believe me, we are much more free than they are."
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan/Mark Heinrich)