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Why Belarus wanted to silence an Olympic sprinter

LONDON — For the man known as Europe’s last dictator, this is personal.

When Belarusian Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, 24, criticized her country’s sporting officials this week for entering her in an unfamiliar race, she said she was told to return home immediately and face the consequences of questioning the wishes of President Alexander Lukashenko‘s regime.

She left Tokyo on a flight bound for Austria early Wednesday after spending two nights in the Polish embassy in Tokyo. She is expected to head to Poland, which offered her a humanitarian visa on Monday.

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Experts say that the sports-loving Lukashenko, whose son runs the national Olympic committee and who inherited the role from his father, could not allow the sprinter’s criticism to go unpunished.

Lukashenko “is really very sensitive in terms of sports and even more so when there’s criticism — he likes to act as if he is a sports man, in such good physical shape, who takes care of sports people,” said Veronica Laputska, co-founder of the Eurasian States in Transition Research Center, a think tank based in Warsaw. “There’s a personal element here. It will have irritated him.”

This is the latest sign of what Belarus-watchers say is the nervous insecurity of a leader who has ruled with authoritarian zeal for 27 years but fears time may be running out.

Belarus athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya arrives at the boarding gate for Austrian Airlines 0S52 at Narita international airport in Tokyo on Wednesday.Yuichi Yamazaki / Getty Images

The episode began when Tsimanouskaya said on Instagram over the weekend that she was told to run in the 4×400-meter relay because other Belarusian athletes had not taken the required number of doping tests.

For this she and her husband, Arseni Zdanevich, who has fled from Belarus to Ukraine, The Associated Press reported, must now start a new life in a new country.

When boarding her flight she was wearing sunglasses bearing the message “I RUN CLEAN,” Reuters reported.

In an interview with the AP on Tuesday night, Tsimanouskaya said officials “made it clear that, upon return home, I would definitely face some form of punishment. There were also thinly disguised hints that more would await me.”

Tsimanouskaya fled Tokyo almost one year after Lukashenko claimed victory in a disputed election, sparking a protest movement against his rule.

Tens of thousands joined marches calling for him to step down and hand over power to opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to neighboring Lithuania and has in the past week met with both President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Lukashenko rode out the protest movement — thousands were arrested and many remain in jail — but observers say it has left him more belligerent and sensitive to criticism.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya runs in the women’s 100-meter run at the Tokyo Olympics on July 30, 2021.Martin Meissner / AP

The intended audience for the action against Tsimanouskaya was very much ordinary Belarusians, according to Elena Korosteleva, a professor of international politics at the University of Kent in England.

“You can see how they blew this out of proportion — just a brief criticism by a sprinter of the Belarusian bureaucracy suddenly turned into an international scandal. It’s another demonstration of power,” she said.

“What Lukashenko aims for is ‘project fear,’ to show that even at these Games in Japan he can still reach out and punish all those who disagree or who dare to criticize.”

A murder investigation is underway in Kyiv, Ukraine, after a prominent Belarusian who helped compatriots flee persecution was found hanged in a park.

Belarus made headlines in May when a flight taking 26-year-old Belarusian journalist and activist Roman Protasevich from Greece to Lithuania was intercepted by fighter jets and rerouted to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, under the pretense of a false bomb threat.

Protasevich was arrested and later confessed to plotting to bring down the president in a TV interview. Opposition figures said he was coerced into taking part in a propaganda exercise.

And on Friday Lukashenko told state-run Belta TV that he was prepared to mobilize 500,000 troops to defend his borders against an unspecified enemy, with the backing of Russian forces if necessary.

The events of the last week show how the Lukashenko regime, short on international friends and with simmering resentment at home, is doing all it can to secure power, experts say.

Lukashenko “feels very vulnerable at the moment because he knows he’s very dependent on Russia, which seems to be the only protector of Belarus at the moment,” Korosteleva said. “He knows he remains very vulnerable against his own people, and of course against the international community.”

Though Lukashenko has said he will step down once the country adopts a new Constitution, experts say there is little chance of this happening soon. Meanwhile, the simmering resentment of Belarusians who feel he stole the 2020 election appears to be quietly growing stronger.

“Lukashenko succeeded in thwarting all the street protests directly, but the indirect resistance continues and it survives in all kinds of digital means, through social media,” Korosteleva said. “That means that one way or another, if not today, Lukashenko’s regime is definitely coming to an end.”

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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