Belarusian athlete stages hunger strike to support jailed compatriots

FILE PHOTO: Andrei Krauchanka of Belarus reacts during the pole vault event of the men's decathlon at the at the European Athletics Championships in Barcelona July 29, 2010. REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler/File Photo

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Decathlete Andrei Krauchanka says that seeing hundreds of people detained for their political views in his native Belarus has been as painful as competing with a torn Achilles tendon.

To support those behind bars and aid their families, the 2008 Olympic silver medallist has started a 10-day hunger strike and is auctioning his gold medal from the 2011 European indoor championships.

Belarusians protested for months after a presidential election last August that opponents say was rigged so that veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko won. He has denied electoral fraud and police have cracked down on protests, detaining thousands.

Krauchanka was briefly jailed last November and dismissed from the national team after signing an open letter demanding new elections. He now wants to draw attention to those still serving time.

"I had some kind of internal urge to do this because the repression isn't subsiding," Krauchanka, 35, told Reuters, days after starting his hunger strike this week. It's only intensifying."

Krauchanka, who said he had lost six kg (13 lb) in the first three days of his hunger strike, won the heptathlon gold medal at the 2011 European indoor championships despite acute pain from his torn Achilles.

"I'm free now, but I hurt for the people who are in prison," Krauchanka said. "I associate this medal with suffering, with pain. The people in prison are suffering, like I was when I won this medal."

On Friday, $1,625 stood as the highest bid for the medal on eBay.

Krauchanka, who contracted COVID-19 and missed his daughter's first birthday while in jail, had been attempting to make an Olympic comeback but lingering injuries dashed his hopes.

He wants to help shape the "Belarus of the future."

"That will be when you can say what you think and no one will repress you for it," Krauchanka said. "No one will put you in jail, fire you, kick you off the national team."

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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