Right groups say Belarus has targeted hundreds of activists, journalists and opposition figures since the 2020 election.
The United States has imposed a raft of visa restrictions on Belarusians over the government’s “continued repression” of opposition figures, including democracy icon Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski.
The restrictions announced on Tuesday target 25 individuals, bringing the total number of Belarussians facing US visa bars for “undermining democracy” to 322 since President Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected in 2020 in landslide polls dismissed by the opposition and foreign observers – including the US government and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – as a sham.
Rights activists have estimated that about 1,500 people currently remain in jail in Belarus on charges considered politically motivated.
“We will not stand by as this regime continues to harass and repress peaceful protesters, the democratic opposition, journalists, unionists, activists, human rights defenders, and everyday Belarusians,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
The latest measures come as the trial of Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main challenger in 2020, begins in Minsk.
The opposition leader, who fled the country and has been living in exile in Lithuania since the election, decried the trial in a tweet on Monday. She faces several charges, including treason, and a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
“I am charged with 10+ crimes. Does it change anything for me? Nothing,” she posted. “It is just the revenge of a pathetic dictator who lost power & tries to take revenge on all who stood up for freedom. Belarus needs real justice, not a puppet show.”
Tsikhanouskaya is on trial with Volha Kavalkova, head of the Coordination Council, the body tasked with facilitating Belarus’s democratic transition.
In its release, the US Department of State also referenced Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation founder Alex Apeikin and Belarusian Olympic swimmer Aliaksandra Herasimenia, both activists who in December were found guilty of committing acts that “aimed at harming the national security” and sentenced to 12 years in prison in absentia.
The State Department also decried the prosecution of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and “political prisoner” Ales Bialiatski, whose trial on charges connected to financing protests and smuggling money began in early January.
The Belarusians targeted by Washington included members of the National Assembly of Belarus, for “their role in passing legislation to authorize the death penalty for persons convicted of supposed ‘attempted acts of terrorism,’ a charge used to repress and intimidate the democratic opposition and civil society”, Blinken said in the statement.
He added that some of those censured had also backed legislation that stripped citizenship and allowed the seizure of property of opposition figures living in exile.