MSPs to play football match against Belarusians in UK to raise awareness of plight of political prisoners

​MSPs are to play Belarusians from across the UK in a football match in Holyrood to raise awareness of the plight of political prisoners in the country.

The Belarusian team is being put together by Alexander Kozlovski, who was sports director of Hearts Football Club and assistant manager to Eduard Malofeev, when the club was under the ownership of Russian-Lithuanian businessman Vladimir Romanov.​

Belarus is ruled by dictator Alexander Lukashenko, an ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Many Belarusians, including journalists and human rights campaigners, have been imprisoned for speaking out against Mr Lukashenko, or for taking part in protests.

A group of pro-democracy Belarusians living in Scotland, called the People's Consulate of Belarus in Scotland, is coordinating the match, in a stand against persecution of those opposed to Mr Lukashenko’s rule. They called for Belarus to be recognised as a territory that has been temporarily occupied by Russia.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko in April.

Belarus is subject to some international sanctions, alongside Russia, due to its government’s close links to the Kremlin.

Liberal ​D​emocrat MSPs Liam McArthur and Willie Rennie are behind the organisation of the match, which will be played on Wednesday in Holyrood Park.

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Irina McLean, spokeswoman for the People's Consulate of Belarus in Scotland, said: "Belarus is under Russian political occupation, where no decisions are being made without Russia's permission. Russian Army forces are placed at Belarus, Belarus must be recognised as a temporarily occupied territory.

“It was with the outbreak of the war against Ukraine that it became obvious that the regime of the Belarusian dictator Lukashenko had lost control over the territory of Belarus, which is the most important sign of the sovereignty of any state.

She added: “With the full assistance and connivance of Lukashenko’s illegitimate government, military control of the Belarusian territory passed to the Russian Federation, which needed it for military purposes. And the fact that Lukashenko has allowed Putin to occupy Belarus without firing a single shot, indicates only that his regime is not only illegitimate, but also non-self-governing and a puppet. However, this in no way cancels the very fact of such occupation, which in the modern world is called hybrid and non-belligerent. And international recognition of this fact is the starting point for dealing with its worst consequence — aggression against Ukraine."

Mr McArthur said: "In Belarus, political activists and journalists are facing extreme violence and torture.

"As well as allowing us to forge links between Scotland and the Belarusian diaspora, I hope that this game can help to raise awareness of the plight of political prisoners in Belarus; and encourage MSPs from all parties to share their support for those wrongfully detained by the Belarusian state.”

He added: "The international community has a duty to put pressure on the Belarusian state to end its abuses of human rights and to stand in solidarity with the Belarusian people, and their right to peaceful political protest and freedom of the press."

Belarus, which has Russian troops stationed along its border with Ukraine, is one of Russia's only allies. Opposition politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was widely believed to have won the majority of the last election in Belarus in August 2020. However, she was forced to flee the country immediately after the vote, with Mr Lukashenko, who has led Belarus since 1994, remaining in power.

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