BRUSSELS (AP) — A group of more than 100 European Union lawmakers is urging European soccer's governing body to ban Belarus from qualifying for the 2024 European Championship.
MEPs from across the political spectrum wrote in a letter sent to UEFA president Alexander Ceferin that the Belarusian national team should not be able to compete because of the country's terrible human rights record.
"These are not only UEFA values at stake, but also UEFA’s reputation and image within democratic societies and international community," they said.
Last week, a court in Belarus sentenced exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to 15 years in prison after a trial in absentia on charges including conspiring to overthrow the government, the latest move in a months-long effort by the government to suppress dissent.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin in his war against Ukraine. Russia used Belarusian territory to send troops into Ukraine more than a year ago at the start of the war.
Russia — which is already excluded from UEFA and FIFA competitions — has maintained troops and weapons in Belarus and the two countries have regularly conducted joint drills as part of their military alliance.
This stance left Lukashenko even more isolated in Europe, where his country faces sanctions from the European Union for both its role in the war and his repression of domestic opposition.
All Belarusian teams have been banned from hosting international soccer games and play home games in neutral countries, with no fans allowed to attend. But UEFA decided last year to let Belarus enter the Euro 2024 qualifying draw despite a government request from tournament-host Germany to remove the team because the country is a military ally of Russia.
“The very fact of participating in UEFA Championship by the Belarusian national team will be later used by Lukashenko and his propaganda team to prove he is well-received in the international community,” the MEPs wrote in their letter Wednesday.
"This would be an offense to the victims of the Russian aggression in Ukraine and to all the Belarusians who were forced to flee from their homeland as well as those who stayed in Belarus and now must live in fear and terror," they added.
Belarus is set to start its qualifying campaign against Switzerland on March 25 in neutral Serbia, a decision that has caused some unease with the Swiss. Players with family roots in Kosovo and Albania — including Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri — could face a hostile reception in the city of Novi Sad.
Israel, Romania, Andorra and Kosovo are also in the gorup.
Most Olympic sports have excluded athletes from Russia and Belarus after Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. But fencing and judo have recently reopened access to athletes from the two countries ahead of qualifying events for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Duesseldorf, Germany, contributed to this report.
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