It has been a difficult past few months for former Belarus basketball star Yelena Leuchanka.
She spent 15 days in jail last month after peacefully protesting against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s disputed re-election, and contracted COVID-19 while in Greece this month.
“I couldn’t be quiet and ignore or make it look like nothing was happening in my country,” Leuchanka said in a Zoom interview. “I used my voice to support the people of my country and to stand with them, because I was seeing how the presidential election went without any international observers.”
Leuchanka was aware of all of the support she received from her former WNBA colleagues and their union, and their stand for social justice this summer.
“It inspired me and a lot of my fellow athletes,” said Leuchanka, who played four seasons in the WNBA. “America is a country of freedom, now we are dealing with a dictatorship where you can get in trouble for your posts on Instagram.”
Leuchanka was detained at Minsk National Airport in late September, as she planned to head to Greece to receive treatment and train.
“I didn’t have a chance to get through check-in. I was packing my bags in plastic and then there was a tap on my back. I saw two police officers,” she said. “They greeted me and said they have to arrest me for participating in the protests.”
From there, the 37-year-old center, who helped the Belarus basketball team to two Olympic appearances, was sentenced at a short hearing and taken to jail.
Leuchanka said that the protest she was at was peaceful.
“We just wanted to be heard,” said Leuchanka, who played college ball at West Virginia.
She was shocked by her experience in jail.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be a resort, as it’s jail. The conditions were awful. The first night we had mattresses, water and the toilet was flushing, but on the next day everything started changing,” Leuchanka said. “After we woke up, they took away our mattresses. Then they turned off the hot water and the toilet stopped working. Sleeping was tough because the bed was just a metal frame.”
Leuchanka said they did not shower and rarely went outside, and that she contracted fleas.
It was also the height of the pandemic, but there was no social distancing or masks.
After serving her 15 days in jail, Leuchanka was released, but then arrested again.
She was tried for participating in protests, but this time was fined and released.
She was finally able to leave the country and headed to Greece.
Leuchanka said that she initially tested negative for COVID-19 after her release, but she was not feeling well a few weeks later and got tested again — she had contracted COVID-19.
“I went for a bath and smelled all the creams to make sure my smell was really gone. I was right, that is what happened. I didn’t panic, but felt weird,” Leuchanka wrote on social media. “Now I have no more temperature, but I can only feel a slight taste of the food, my nose is blocked, even though I can already breathe without any problem.”
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