Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has denied her representatives spoke with International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) President René Fasel prior to his controversial meeting with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.
Fasel told Swiss website Watson that the governing body has been seeking talks with "representatives of the Government and also with the opposition".
The IIHF President said he had spoken to "someone close to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya" prior to the meeting and raised the issue of political prisoners with Lukashenko.
A statement issued by Tikhanovskaya denied having contact with Fasel prior to the meeting, however, with the Belarus opposition leader insisting the IIHF Men’s World Championship be removed from the country.
"Mister Fasel was probably confused in the testimony: neither I nor my team had a meeting with him," Tikhanovskaya said.
"But we know for sure that he met and hugged Lukashenko and Baskov, who is suspected of murdering Roman Bondarenko.
"My position remains unchanged: it is inhuman to hold the World Cup in a country from which the deputy head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs orders to make a camp.
"And we sent letters to the Foreign Ministries of different countries with an appeal to oppose the World Cup in Minsk, until all political prisoners were released, the detentions were not over, and free and fair elections were not held yet."
I think that @IIHFHockey President Mr Fasel is confused in his statements. I/my Office has never had a meeting with him. Instead, dictator Lukashenka had.— Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (@Tsihanouskaya) January 15, 2021
I have sent letters to MFAs of 🇪🇺 countries, 🇨🇦, 🇷🇺 and 🇰🇿 urging to speak out against hosting 2021 Championship in Minsk. pic.twitter.com/fMb9Drg4BV
The IIHF has faced several months of calls to strip Belarus of co-hosting rights for the tournament, amid a violent crackdown on protestors following Lukashenko's disputed re-election in August.
Pressure has now been increased by tournament sponsors, with Nivea Men posting on social media that it would withdraw backing if Belarus remains as co-host.
Car manufacturer Skoda has now followed suit.
"We've been a proud partner to the @IIHFHockey World Championship for 28 years", it said on Twitter.
"But we also respect & promote all human rights.
"Therefore, #SKODA will withdraw from sponsoring the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship if #Belarus is confirmed to be co-hosting the event."
Criticism of the IIHF was increased earlier this week, following Fasel and IIHF general secretary Horst Lichtner travelling to Belarus to meet with Lukashenko.
The IIHF President said the organisation had made it "unmistakably clear that this meeting would be closed to the public and the media".
We've been a proud partner to the @IIHFHockey World Championship for 28 years. But we also respect & promote all human rights. Therefore, #SKODA will withdraw from sponsoring the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship if #Belarus is confirmed to be co-hosting the event. pic.twitter.com/fC3ZMbY2cG— ŠKODA AUTO NEWS (@skodaautonews) January 16, 2021
Photos and videos of the reception with Lukashenko, however, were published and have prompted further criticism online.
Fasel was also pictured at a match with Belarus Ice Hockey Federation President Dmitri Baskov.
Both Belarusian officials are provisionally suspended by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and neither are permitted to enter Latvia.
Baskov is also the subject of an IIHF investigation and stands accused of complicity in the murder of dissident Raman Bandarenka who died last November, when he was injured while participating in a peaceful protest.
Fasel has defended the intention of the meeting with Lukashenko, with the IIHF President telling Watson he "saw an opportunity to maybe turn this World Cup into a World Cup of reconciliation".
"Call it naive and maybe I'm a romantic, but it was worth trying," Fasel, an IOC member, said.
"My personal relationship with Lukashenko allowed us to raise this issue and I was told that I was one of the few he listened to.
"We said to each other that we had a minimal chance of achieving something.
"But it was always clear to us that the image of ice hockey and our association should not be jeopardised.
"The question of whether we can afford to host a World Cup in this country has been asked over and over again, that's why we went to Minsk."
"To talk to the people there and to find out whether it might be possible after all.
"I also wanted to look Lukashenko in the eye and know if it was possible.
"We owe that to the people there, but also us.
"We have a contract with the organisers, we cannot simply dissolve it for political reasons."
Fasel has previously been quoted as saying a decision on Minsk’s co-hosting could be made within five to 10 days.
Co-host Latvia has made an offer to host the 2021 World Championships without Belarus, while co-hosting offers have been received from Denmark and Slovakia.