Inside former WNBA player Yelena Leuchanka's protest and arrest
Civil unrest has rocked Belarus; Leuchanka declares, 'The people are champion'
Welcome to The Next: A basketball newsroom brought to you by The IX. 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage, written, edited and photographed by our young, diverse staff, dedicated to breaking news, analysis, historical deep dives and projections about the game we love.
Subscribe to make sure this vital work, creating a pipeline of young, diverse media professionals to write, edit and photograph the great game, continues and grows. Subscriptions include some exclusive content, but the reason for subscriptions is a simple one: making sure our writers and editors creating 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage get paid to do it.
Belarusian protestor pictured with a cardboard cutout of Yelena Leuchanka and marching in support of Leuchanka’s release. The cutout of Leuchanka is filled with signatures and best wishes. Photo credit: Yegor Mescheriakov, former basketball player and current member of Belarusian Free Union of Athletes.
The people are champion was Yelena Leuchanka’s message as she walked the streets of Belarus on August 23. She was doing more than offering her people hope; it was a call, a hard stance, a feeling Leuchanka couldn’t shake following President Alexander Lukashenko's contested election victory in her native country.
The people are champion was her message to the Belarusian government, which was and still is brutalizing people taking direct action. It’s what her sign read at that day’s protest.
Civil unrest has rocked the Eastern European country of nearly 9.5 million people. It started prior to Lukashenko's re-election and has yet to wane despite continued violence at the hands of the state.
Leuchanka, who most recently spent the 2010 and 2012 seasons with the Atlanta Dream and is one of Belarus’ most prominent athletes, was arrested and detained for having an active part in those demonstrations and “publicly expressed her demands for fair elections,” records stated.
Freedom of speech isn’t afforded to Belarusians. While censorship is prohibited by Belarus’ constitution, it’s still enforced through laws, including one that makes insulting the president punishable by up to five years in prison; it also makes criticizing the country abroad punishable by up to two years.
Leuchanka served 15 days after she was photographed with that sign, that message that reverberates throughout human rights movements worldwide. She was originally scheduled to be released early Thursday morning, following her initial sentence but, the ongoing fight is far from over, and the fluidity of that morning is a microcosm for the disarray that has anchored much of Belarus’ population to the streets—no matter the consequence.
Leuchanka’s sentence was extended due to “another episode.” Her parents were left weeping in front of the courtroom, and her next few days, up to that point, would be inside of a small, cramped cell. Hours later, however, after another trial, Leuchanka was released. The immediate second trial on the new charges, which were the same as the first, just connected to a different protest, resulted in a fine instead of additional jail time.
She finally felt the warmth of her mother’s embrace after more than two weeks in tortuous conditions.
Now, in the 11th week of demonstrations, Belarusian police continue to arrest non-violent protestors at an alarming rate. There’s lingering concern among the athletes who have participated in marches. This regime knows no bounds and Leuchanka’s own treatment has sent shockwaves through the community.
Leuchanka’s activism and celebrity could make her an even bigger target of unchecked torture. She was in a cell with three others; they were left to clean the walls themselves, without showers, without beds. All the Belarusian government needs is another picture, another excuse to send Leuchanka, any athlete, or anyone protesting, back to sleeping on cold metal beams with no running water or working toilet. There have been an estimated 10 athletes arrested and more than 20 banned from training in Belarus, and, according to the Viasna human rights center, nearly 14,900 total people have been detained since the election with 91 declared political prisoners. Still, there’s something bigger driving them. There’s an interconnectedness among all who feel called to action in the same way Leuchanka did.
"If you cut yourself, and it's not healing and you continue to press on the cut, eventually it's going to start bleeding," Leuchanka told DW prior to her imprisonment. "We're past the point of coming back from this. We're in the 21st century, we're in Europe, how is this possible? There's no human rights here. We can't peacefully protest.”
The unprecedented movement happening in Belarus will forever change the country—at least that’s what’s driving the fight. The demonstrations began before Lukashenko took his sixth term in office. He has ruled over Belarus as its first and only president since the office was established 26 years ago. Lukashenko’s landslide victory, by 80%, isn’t recognized by the United States or the European Union, and Belarusians have since been calling for a free and fair election ever since.
Lukashenko heads an authoritarian government and is often referred to as “Europe's last dictator.” While mass arrests are happening, Belarusian police are also using brute force. Prior to Leuchanka’s imprisonment, she shared one example of police brutality she witnessed:
"The guy was taken by a couple of people that surrounded him, and this one guy comes from his back and out of nowhere just hits him in the stomach, where the person is already being held, so he can't even protect himself," she said. "I don't understand why there's so much hurt and so much hate towards your own people."
The situation isn’t as complicated as it can seem, and though Belarus is an ocean away from the United States, the fight connects back to current movements stateside. This isn’t just another international issue; this isn’t something we can shake our heads at and move on moments later.
“We have said that for years and years when there was another disease in Africa or Asia, ‘Oh, it’s not here’; another war, ‘It’s not here,’ and so on,” said Washington Mystics’ Emma Meesseman, who was one of the first WNBA players to bring awareness to Leuchanka’s arrest. “But look now, the whole world is affected by a pandemic, there are protests everywhere. In Belarus, the police brutality is against everyone standing up for their rights. The news of Yelena reached the whole basketball world and beyond. Black Lives Matter reached the whole world. Everyone is trying to battle COVID-19. I hope people will feel more compassionate for each other and know that everything can happen to yourself too, and then you would want others to step [up] as well.”
The way sport is messily intertwined with the government makes matters worse, especially for athletes who want to speak up. Some have found a way through newly created movements like the Belarusian Free Union of Athletes. Yegor Mescheriakov, a former basketball player and current member, helped contextualize the unrest.
“The issue is that no matter what you do, the court system will do whatever is necessary to jail or to suppress the activist,” Yegor Mescheriakov, a former basketball player and current member of the Free Union of Athletes, told The Next.
“Belarusians as a nation had been awakened and it seems that we are beyond the point of no return. In other words, the nation will never be the same again, we will not put up with the police violence, with authorities which make fake court hearings, etc., and including of course the rigged elections of August 9.”
Yegor Mescheriakov pictured with a cardboard cutout of Yelena Leuchanka and marching in support of Leuchanka’s release. The cutout of Leuchanka is filled with signatures and best wishes. Photo credit: Yegor Mescheriakov, former basketball ball player and current member of Belarusian Free Union of Athletes.
The messages from Mescheriakov were sporadic. He’s been in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, a city nearly the size of Houston and almost centrally located within the country. While fellow WNBA athletes and NBA counterparts were calling for Leuchanka’s release, Mescheriakov was on the ground in Belarus, working, fighting, marching.
He could face the same legal issue as Leuchanka; authorities showed him a photo of the two during the peaceful protest. He too might face time in prison. The added attention following the news of Leuchanka’s imprisonment certainly helps get the message out. With even more attention internationally, where the liberation of all oppressed peoples has been at the center of consciousness, WNBA players, once again, firmly supported a movement.
“When people want to have freedom, as they should, and want a peaceful life, that shouldn’t be taken for granted and shouldn’t be controlled by political dictators who want power, greed, and money,” said Angel McCoughtry, former Dream and current Las Vegas Aces forward. “And this what we’ve seen for many, many years: power, greed and money; power, greed and money. And what has it really gotten anyone? So to me, for people to continue to act [this] way, [it’s] a lack of education and it’s a lack of humanity. This is God’s world; he created it and for us to destroy it and become so evil, it’s really sad to see.”
Meesseman saw the discord unravel among Belarusians and the government by following the news in Belgium, but this struck a different cord.
“I immediately thought that that could’ve happened to my teammates in WNBA as well in these times,” Meesseman told The Next via e-mail. “In the past months I kind of learned what was important and the main thing is to spread the word. I just shared whatever I found and people also sent me posts and information.”
In a time where crises continue to threaten human rights and the very survival of people and nations, heightened awareness and support are instrumental. Liberation can be tied to years, decades and centuries of activism currently seen in movements like Black Lives Matter, Say Her Name and End SARS. The current movement in Belarus is another extension of human rights movements, another call we can answer in our own ways, using our own skills and tools. The addition of Belarusian athletes is fairly new to the current revolution taking place; the time came for Leuchanka to break her silence and many, many others have followed.
“I would say that we as a nation we see the light in the end of the tunnel, and the fact that so many athletes have been in prison already or fired from their jobs will not be forgotten,” said Mescheriakov, who was referring to two more kickboxers recently imprisoned. “The people of Belarus will persevere until the end until fair elections that will start the new era for our country.”
The people are champion.