Aleksandra Herasimenia, a former Olympic and world champion swimmer from Belarus, has been sentenced to 12 years in prison in absentia for "creating an extremist group." The charges stem from her involvement in the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation, which she founded in 2020 and which brings together hundreds of Belarusian athletes who are critical of the authoritarian rule of President Alexander Lukashenko.
During the protests that erupted in Belarus in 2020 following Lukashenko's contested re-election, Herasimenija signed an open letter, along with other Belarusian athletes, calling for "free elections." As a result of her activism, the Belarusian authorities have confiscated all of her property and banned her from returning to the country.
Despite the severe punishment she has faced, Herasimenia has continued to support Belarusian athletes through the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Association (BSSF), which she formed after retiring from competitive swimming in 2019.
The BSSF provides financial and legal assistance to athletes who have been targeted by the authorities. In addition to her activism through the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation, Aleksandra Herasimenia is also accused of undermining the national security of Belarus through her work with fellow activist, Opeikin.
The two are credited with contributing to the cancelation of major international tournaments in Belarus in 2021, including the European Track Championships, the Ice Hockey World Championship, and the World Modern Pentathlon Championships.
These cancellations were seen as a major embarrassment for President Alexander Lukashenko, who is known for his love of sports and his own skill as a hockey player. The trial against Herasimenia and Opeikin was held in secret and without the accused present, in accordance with a law signed by Lukashenko in July allowing courts to try Belarusians living abroad in absentia.
In addition to her prison sentence, the court also ordered the seizure of Herasimenia's apartment, car, and $48,000 in bank accounts. Herasimenia and Opeikin are among the 1,439 political prisoners currently being held in Belarus, according to human rights group Viasna.
Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is also facing prosecution and living in exile in Lithuania, condemned the sentences handed down to the two activists, stating, "This is how the regime tries to punish its opponents in exile...the regime can't get to them, but their property in Belarus was seized, including a car (and) an apartment." As an athlete, Herasimenia was highly successful, winning three Olympic medals, including a silver in the 50 and 100 freestyle at the London 2012 Games and a bronze in the 50-meter freestyle at the Rio 2016 Games.
It is a tragic irony that her activism has now resulted in a prison sentence that is longer than the entirety of her competitive career.