The Washington Mystics have been well known for their advocacy of social justice issues this year. Both they and the Washington Wizards have are organizing voter registration drives ahead of the American federal elections on Nov. 3.
Regardless of the outcome of various elections, especially the presidency, political opponents and their supporters are not at risk of being jailed for just that, at least to this point in modern American history.
But in Belarus, it seems like that people are being jailed for supporting the opposition. And a former Washington Mystics player is currently incarcerated for that.
Yelena Leuchanka, a long-time member of Belarus’ women’s national basketball team and two-time Olympian, played for Washington in the 2007 season. And she has been in jail since last week for breaking a law on mass demonstrations. Leuchanka was arrested at an airport in Minsk traveling for medical treatment, according to Deutsche Welle, a German news agency.
Her sentence is 15 days, but it’s possible that it could be longer.
So how did Leuchanka get involved in Belarusian political protests? I’ll keep this as brief as I can.
On August 9, Belarus held its presidential election with incumbent Alexander Lukashenko running against Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who was supported by the opposition. Lukashenko, who has been president since 1994, won with 80 percent of the vote. However, there were widespread claims of electoral fraud according to poll workers, which prompted criticism worldwide, including the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Korea and the United States.
There are many Belarusians unhappy with the outcome and they protested on the streets since then. In response, the government has forbidden mass demonstrations. They have happened anyway, where many people were arrested or beaten by police.
And Leuchanka was in the protests.
Many Belarusian athletes, including Leuchanka, spoke about the situation released on Sept. 25 as part of the Free Union of Belarusian Athletes, a group that is ultimately asking for Lukashenko’s resignation.
Yelena Levchenko, member of the Belarus national basketball team, has been detained this morning. She is one of the co-creators of the Free union of Belarusian athletes uniting over 600 athletes who openly condemn police violence and demand Lukashenko's resignation. https://t.co/rCJ6lbAZ9M— NEXTA (@nexta_tv) September 30, 2020
In the United States, we have plenty of political unrest, though not at the level of Belarus’. Sacramento Kings assistant coach Lindsey Harding, who also has Belarusian citizenship and played for the national team in 2016, tweeted this out soon after Leuchanka’s arrest. Harding also played for the Mystics, but from 2009-10.
My WNBA/Belarus National Team teammate Yelena Leuchanka has been ARRESTED! @yelenaleu actively protests against the Lukashenka's dictatorship,police violence & deception of the Belarusian authorities. #freeleuchanka pic.twitter.com/sCxaQgFz6i— Lindsey Harding (@Lindsey_Harding) October 1, 2020
Emma Meesseman also tweeted this out.
Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter, who has openly criticized the government in his native Turkey, also voiced support for Leuchanka.
Basketball player Elena Levchenko, Olympic medalist from #Belarus, has been detained at the airport by #Lukashenko's police.— Enes Kanter (@EnesKanter) September 30, 2020
Because she's active in Free Association of Belarusian Athletes. She should be freed!
She was traveling to medical treatment#StandWithBelarus ✊ @HRF pic.twitter.com/OHUxa74FY6
Though Leuchanka didn’t play in the WNBA since 2012 for the Atlanta Dream, the WNBPA has voiced its support for her as well.
The European Elite Athletes Association also released a statement yesterday.
And finally, let’s make this full circle and get back to the Belarusian election itself. Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition leader left the country and went to Lithuania, a European Union member state where she is in exile since last month. Given the situation in Belarus, she could be jailed, or worse. She has since spoken to other continental leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron last week and German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday.
We certainly have been supportive of Wizards and Mystics players fighting for the social causes they believe in here in America. But let’s also not take our rights to speech, assembly and voting for granted.
The situation in Belarus shows just that, and Leuchanka shouldn’t be incarcerated just because she is protesting the outcome of elections in her country. She must be freed, even if she’s halfway through her sentence as of the day of this post.
And finally, if you haven’t registered to vote, you can still do so if you are in D.C., Maryland or Virginia. All of the links are through official government sites, not marketing ones affiliated with a political organization:
- In D.C,, you can register here and in-person registrations can be done on Election Day, which is Nov. 3. Mail-in registrations are due by Oct. 13.
- In Maryland, you can register here. They also allow in-person registrations on Nov. 3 but get them done sooner. Online registrations are due by Oct. 13.
- In Virginia, you must register online or in person by Oct. 13. You cannot register to vote after that day.