Uefa awarded brutal dictator Alexander Lukashenko the hosting rights of the 2025 women’s U19 European Championship. According to Amnesty International, the government of Belarus is violating human rights on a scale not witnessed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Authorities persecute footballers who demand democracy.
By Lars Johnsen
At the 45th Uefa Congress in Montreux, Switzerland, the Super League clubs got most of the attention. In a furious speech Uefa president Aleksander Čeferin denounced the 12 breakaway clubs. “Selfishness is replacing solidarity,” he said.
At the same congress the executive committee led by the same Čeferin awarded one of its tournaments to Belarus, ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’, a country imprisoning and torturing peaceful protesters, among them footballers.
“Harm to the national security of the Republic of Belarus”
As Belarus was getting ready for the 2020 presidential election, protests against the sitting president, Alexander Lukashenko, gained momentum. Balaclava-clad police used tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and arrests to quell the protests. But the protests continued. A rally by the presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in Minsk drew up to 70 000 people.
Demonstrations increased after the election on 9 August, where Lukashenko declared himself the winner with 80 percent of the votes, giving him a sixth term in office. The result was condemned by the EU for being fraudulent. With increased protests came an increased use of brutal tactics by the authorities. Presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania.
“Protesters were beaten in the back of police vans, beaten upon arrival at police stations. They were subjected to mental and physical torture,” Natallia Satskunevich from Viasna Human Rights Centre tells Josimar.
Sportspeople speaking up for democracy were not spared when security forces drew their batons and pepper spray canisters.
“Athletes play one of the leading roles in the protests,” Aliaksander Opeikin tells Josimar. Opeikin is a founding member and executive director of the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation (BSSF), an organisation founded “to protect rights of athletes against discrimination in Belarus and provide them with the required support.”
Shortly after the 2020 presidential election, over 100 Belarusian sports personalities signed an open letter calling for the results of the election to be invalidated.
A few days after Lukashenko declared himself the winner, whilst in the office of the Minsk-based handball club Vityaz where he’s a director, Opeikin received a message warning him of his likely arrest. Within two hours, bringing only his passport, he had a friend drive him to Lithuania. He is now a political refugee in the Baltic country, and can not return to his homeland before Lukashenko is ousted. Opeikin says he faces arrest and five years in prison if he returns to Belarus under the current dictatorship.
On 2 April 2021 the investigative committee of the Republic of Belarus opened a criminal case against Opeikin and the foundation’s chairperson Aliaksandra Herasimenia for having pressured international sports bodies into moving major sporting events from Belarus. They’re charged with “actions aimed at causing harm to the national security of the Republic of Belarus.”
Their names, their crimes
BSSF have documented that, in the period 8 August to 20 December, 73 athletes, coaches and administrators across the sporting landscape in Belarus have been arrested, beaten, tortured or forced out of their positions for peacefully protesting the regime – people involved in athletics, swimming, skiing, basketball, chess, American football, rugby, martial arts, ice hockey, volleyball, handball and football. The list includes several Olympic, world and European championship medallists. BSSF chairperson Herasimenia is herself a five-time Olympic medallist, as well as world and European champion, in swimming.
12 of those 73 are football players, coaches or administrators:
Sergey Kazeka, player for FC Krumkachy, detained on his way home and directed to the Okrestina detention centre, then released, but needed medical help because of a vertebral fracture.
Pavel Rassolko, player of the FC Krumkachy, detained on his way home and directed to the Okrestina detention centre, then released.
Rostislav Shavel, player of FC Gorodeya, repeatedly detained and sentenced to 13 days of imprisonment for participation in an unauthorised protest. Before that, he was imprisoned for 8 days accused by the same provisions.
Mikhail Zaleuski, the general director of FC Bate, dismissed after using social media to protest law enforcement agency violence towards the civil population.
Vasili Khamutouski, a goalkeeping coach for FC Dinamo Brest, dismissed for the active civil position.
Anton Soroka, forward for FC Bate and the national team, sentenced to 7 days in jail for participating in peaceful protests against the results of the presidential elections.
Andrey Arkhipov, player for FC Lida, forced to leave the club after being recorded on a video protesting against violence towards the football community.
Volha Khizhinkova, ex-press officer of FC Dinamo Brest, miss Belarus title holder, detained on 8 November and sentenced to 12 days of imprisonment for participation in unauthorised protests. The second court prolonged the term to 27 days. Khizhinkova has been subjected to physical and psychological violence and torture.
Viktor Bulat, massage therapist of the national football team, no longer involved with the national team due to signing the open letter condemning the actions of Belarusian authorities and law enforcement agencies.
Rostislav Shavel, player for FC Gorodeya, repeatedly detained and sentenced to 13 days of imprisonment for participation in an unauthorised protests. Before that, he was in prison for 8 days accused by the same provisions.
Roman Gaev, player for FC Dnepr Rogachev, detained and fined for participation in an unauthorised protest.
Ruslan Pratasenia, coach, detained and sentenced to 14 days of imprisonment for asking a policeman whether it is allowed to commemorate the murdered Belarusian citizen Raman Bandarenka.
Pavel Vastravukh, press officer of FC Minsk, detained on 15 November during the peaceful protests on the “Square of changes.” He was sentenced to 10 days arrest. After that he left the club. He did so in order to show solidarity with colleague at the club who had signed the open letter and was fired for his political position.
Football development “even under current circumstances”
When a Uefa member association bids to host a Uefa tournament, the bid is first vetted by Uefas administration before it lands on the table of the relevant committee. For women’s tournaments, it is assigned to Uefa’s women’s football committee who “assists in the process of selecting the host association(s) for the final round of the UEFA European Women’s Championship, the UEFA European Women’s Under-19 Championship and the UEFA European Women’s Under-17 Championship.”
Was the human rights situation in Belarus discussed in the committee?
Jon Mørland, the Norwegian FAs representative on the Uefa’s women’s football committee, has not responded to our repeated requests.
Aleksiander Opeikin tells Josimar the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation has informed Uefa’s disciplinary commission of violations of football players’ human rights. Due to confidentiality he could not share the details of the cases.
Despite it being well-documented that footballers and other athletes have been victims of systematic human rights violations by the Belarusian authorities, the governing body of football in Europe awarded the 2025 women’s U19 European Championship to Belarus.
Uefa did so despite its supposed commitment to human rights, stated on uefa.com:
“UEFA is committed to supporting and safeguarding human rights, with special focus on the potential impact of its major competitions.
“UEFA has included human rights criteria as part of its social responsibility bidding chapter and will ensure that human rights standards are adhered to at future UEFA competitions, with particular focus on EURO 2024 in Germany as the standard-bearer.
“Leading by example in its commitment to respect human rights, UEFA hopes to set a standard that will trickle down through national football associations, ensuring that human rights are protected at every level of the game.”
Uefa has moved two events scheduled this year from Belarus, the Uefa Futsal Champions League final tournament and the women’s U19 European Championship. In both instances, the Covid-19 pandemic – and not the human rights situation – were given as reason by Uefa for the moves.
And: the Montreux Uefa congress. where Belarus was awarded the hosting rights of the 2025 WU19 Euros, was originally scheduled to be held in the capital of Lukashenko’s dictatorship. On 24 September 2020, Uefa stated that it, along with all Uefa meetings the following six months, was moved to Switzerland because of Covid-19 restrictions.
The executive committee is the body responsible for awarding tournaments and other Uefa events. Karl-Erik Nilsson, president of the Swedish FA, Uefa vice-president and executive committee member, stated this in an email to Josimar:
“In 2020/2021 the Belarus Football Federation should have hosted the UEFA Congress, the Women’s Under-19 European Championship and the final tournament of the UEFA Futsal Champions League. None of these events actually took place in Belarus.
“The UEFA Executive Committee thus eventually decided to award the organisation of the Women’s Under-19 European Championship to the Belarus Football Federation, but only in 2025, that is in four years’ time.
“As a sports organisation we believe it is our duty to continue to promote the development of football in the region even under current circumstances.”
Nilsson has not responded to our follow-up question of how this decision aligns with Uefa’s stated policy on human rights.
Three levels of the Uefa decision-making process found Belarus, “even under current circumstances,” to be an adequate host for the 2025 women’s U19 European Championship.
Josimar asked Terje Svendsen, president of the Norwegian FA and a member of Uefas national team competition committee, for his thoughts on Uefa awarding the tournament to Belarus.
“This is a good example of the challenges of awarding international tournaments, but also where we as federations and clubs should draw the line regarding playing matches in countries violating fundamental rights. This is a topic in both football and sport where we together must find the way forward.”
We asked Uefa if they had any hesitations in awarding the 2025 WU19 Euro to Belarus in light of the events in the country the last six months. Uefa has not responded to our repeated requests.
“Extremely out of tune by Uefa”
“There is no press freedom in Belarus. Only a brave person would be a journalist in Belarus,” says Natallia Satskunevich from Viasna Human Rights Centre. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Belarus is the most dangerous country for media personnel in Europe. Journalists critical of the regime are subject to threats and violence and have been arrested in large numbers. RSF ranks Belarus bottom of all European countries for press freedom, and 168th of 180 countries worldwide. According to RSF, 400 journalists have been arrested for covering the peaceful protests against Alexander Lukashenko. They have registered 62 cases of physical violence against journalists since the 9 August 2020 election.
Journalists and activists are charged with “organising mass riots,” the Belarusian government’s code for “peaceful assembly.”
”There were no mass riots. There were only protests in the form of peaceful assembly. The violence came from the police,“ Satskunevich explains.
She too is exiled in Lithuania. Whilst on holiday in Egypt in January, messages poured in that the Belarusian authorities were stepping up its persecution of human rights activists. With dozens of her colleagues already jailed, she decided not to risk returning to the homeland. While in exile, her home in Minsk has been raided by police.
Human rights NGOs are firmly behind the Belarusian human rights advocates, among them the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights and Amnesty International.
At a time where the whole world is discussing the situation of migrant workers in the 2022 World Cup host Qatar, and how that country uses a football tournament to sportswash itself, John Peder Egenæs, general secretary of Amnesty International Norway, slams Uefa’s decision to award one of its championships to Belarus.
“It’s extremely out of tune by Uefa to award a tournament to Belarus at a time where the Belarusian government violates human rights on a scale not seen in that region since the days of the Soviet Union,” he says
Belarus has for a long time been called ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’. In Egenæs’ view, the events around the last election showed that this label is correct, citing Lukashenko’s arrests of opponents before the 9 August election and the “mass arrests and torture” of regular people who had “risen up against the fraudulent result” after the election.
Awarding a Uefa tournament to such a country is diametrically opposed to the views ordinary football supporters have expressed regarding the World Cup in Qatar, Egenæs says.
The Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC) is astounded that Uefa can reward a human rights violating dictatorship the right to host one of its tournaments.
“By awarding this tournament to Belarus, and choosing to ignore the massive daily abuse happening in Belarus, Uefa has waived its responsibility. How is it possible to not register that over 30 000 Belarusians have been imprisoned, have been victims of violence – even torture – since August 2020? Arrests keep happening. It has now entered a critical phase: 2300 criminal cases have been opened. 321 political prisoners are in jail,” the NHC writes in an email to Josimar.
Viasna’s website updates the number of political prisoners daily. As of 3 May, the number is 360, rising almost every day.
In a press release about the jailed Russian lawyer Ivan Pavlov, the NHC also addressed football tournaments being awarded to countries violating human rights:
“The Norwegian Helsinki Committee and Civil Rights Defenders find it inappropriate to place the Uefa football matches and other mega-sporting events in dictatorships and countries that do not respect human rights.”
The NHC points out that Uefa, by awarding the 2025 women’s U19 European Championship to Belarus, draws the opposite conclusion from that of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), who in January stripped the country from hosting matches at this year’s Men’s World Championship, IIHF’s most prestigious event.