By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Belarusian athletes and opposition supporters on Tuesday welcomed a decision to strip Belarus of this year's ice hockey world championship, a prestigious event they say would have given the country's embattled president an international boost.
The Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation (BSSF), with the support of the Belarusian diaspora and opposition activists, sent a flurry a letters to the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and to tournament sponsors and national federations describing the crackdown on anti-government protesters in the wake of Alexander Lukashenko's contested re-election last year.
The group lobbied for Minsk to be stripped of its right to co-host with neighbouring Latvia hockey's biggest annual tournament.
"Holding such a major tournament would have legitimized Lukashenko's rule," foundation head and Olympic swimmer Aliaksandra Herasimenia told Reuters on Tuesday.
"I think it's a small step that helps shrink Lukashenko's sphere of influence," the three-time Olympic medallist said.
Lukashenko, in power since 1994, claimed his sixth term in August last year in a vote the opposition says was rigged and marred with violations.
The 66-year-old, who denies fraud, has remained in power with the support of Russia while some Western countries have imposed sanctions against his government.
The IIHF on Monday said it was moving the tournament, which runs from May 21 to June 6, due to safety concerns over political unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic.
It came under additional pressure in the last few days when tournament sponsors Skoda Auto and Liqui Moly threatened to withdraw if the event were to be held in Minsk, which also hosted the 2014 event.
Lukashenko is an avid hockey fan. He regularly plays with senior Belarus officials and occasionally with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Asked whether Lukashenko might feel hurt seeing his country stripped of the tournament, Herasimenia said: "I would like to ask if it hurt when thousands of people were beaten up, put in jail for no reason, when handicapped people, children and old people were repressed. That did not hurt him."
The Belarusian government said it regretted the IIHF's "unfounded decision."
The head of the Belarusian Ice Hockey Federation said BSSF members had betrayed their country.
"Today you are celebrating a victory, stripping the Belarusian people of a real celebration," Dmitry Baskov said in a statement. "After that you cannot call yourselves Belarusians! You are traitors!"
(Editing by Angus MacSwan)