The world ice hockey governing body on Tuesday protested Latvia’s decision to display the Belarusian opposition flag at this year’s world championship in Riga, pointing out that it was a sports organization apolitical.
Latvian officials swapped the Belarusian national flag for the opposition’s white-red-white flag in solidarity with journalist Roman Protasevich, who was arrested on Sunday after Belarus forced the Ryanair flight he was on to land in Minsk.
The replacement of the flag on Monday led Belarus to expel all Latvian embassy staff, including the ambassador. Latvia then responded with the reciprocal expulsion of Belarusian diplomats.
Riga has been named the sole host for the 2021 Ice Hockey World Championship, which kicked off on May 21, after Belarus was excluded from its role as co-host over “security concerns”.
The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) “does not agree with the measures taken yesterday by the Mayor of Riga and the Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs to use the flag of a country participating in the World Ice Hockey Championship. Ice 2021 from the IIHF for a political message, ”the Swiss-based governing body said in a statement.
“The actions of the Belarusian government are distinct from those of the players competing under the Belarusian flag in this tournament. The players have been welcomed in Latvia as guests and should not have to have their flag removed without their consent during the public display of the 16 participating countries, ”he added.
The IIHF said it has asked the mayor of Riga to remove the flag of the governing body of the same region so that the organization “is removed from any association with political statements”.
He added that he hoped the mayor’s office would reconsider its decision, but Riga mayor Martins Stakis said he would not withdraw the opposition flag.
“I have made my choice and we will proceed with the removal of the IIHF flags from public space in Riga,” Stakis said on his Facebook page on Tuesday.
“We cannot forget that just a few hundred kilometers away an EU plane is hijacked and people are being tortured and killed,” he added.
“The regime which commits these crimes behaves like a bandit at the national level and now also at the international level.”
Longtime Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and his allies are already under EU and US sanctions for his crackdown on protests that erupted after a presidential vote last August.
During months of protests that have since faded, opponents demanded the resignation of the 66-year-old president, saying the election was rigged.
© 2021 AFP