Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya will meet Boris Johnson on Tuesday as international pressure mounts on the Minsk regime.
The treatment of Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya has focused attention on Alexander Lukashenko’s autocratic rule.
Tsimanouskaya has been granted a visa by Poland after saying she feared for her safety at the Tokyo games, claiming her team’s officials in Japan tried to force her to fly home.
The drama unfolded after Tsimanouskaya hit out at how officials were managing her team — setting off a massive backlash in state-run media in Belarus, where the authorities relentlessly crack down on government critics.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya, who was defeated by Mr Lukashenko in an election last year which has been condemned by the UK and allies as “rigged”, said the athlete is now safe.
But asked if the sprinter’s family was safe, the opposition leader told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “Nobody in Belarus can feel safe. It’s a pity, but that’s true.”
She said that “sport is a weapon of propaganda” for the regime, but the athletes were under “psychological pressure” to perform as a result.
“It’s like Stalin’s time: you have to play for your country but when you understand that country doesn’t take care about you, it’s difficult – morally difficult – to fight for,” she said.
Ahead of her talks with Mr Johnson, she said: “I want the British Government to keep Belarus on the agenda, taking into consideration all the violence that’s going on inside the country and… the threat that the regime now is for the international community.”
The visit comes as police in Ukraine investigate the death of a Belarusian activist who ran a group helping his countrymen flee persecution.
Vitaly Shishov, leader of the Kyiv-based Belarusian House in Ukraine, was found hanged in one of the city’s parks not far from his home.
A murder probe has been launched, with police believing that the death was made to look like suicide.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya said she was “devastated” by his death, adding: “It is worrying that those who flee Belarus still can’t be safe.”
The Foreign Office called on Mr Lukashenko to commit to fresh elections, a year on from the disputed poll.
A spokesman said: “Our message is clear: the Lukashenko regime must commit to meaningful dialogue and new elections.
“They must allow the Belarusian people the freedom to choose their own government and democratically decide their own future.”