US hits Belarusian officials with travel bans for crackdown

US secretary of state announces sanctions on 43 Belarusian nationals hours after two journalists are sentenced.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, has denounced six months of protests against his rule as a foreign-directed 'rebellion' [Maxim Guchek/BelTA Pool Photo via AP]

The United States on Thursday imposed travel restrictions on 43 Belarusian nationals identified as taking part in President Alexander Lukashenko’s “crackdown” on protesters and journalists.

The US action was announced by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement that followed the sentencing Thursday of two journalists who had livestreamed an enormous protest in Minsk in November.

Katsiaryna Bakhvalava, age 27, and Daria Chultsova, 23, both of the Polish-funded Belsat TV channel were sentenced to two years in prison covering the protest.

The State Department also noted raids by Belarusian authorities on February 16 on Vyasna, an association of journalists, and on independent trade union workers.

Blinken’s statement said the US “remains alarmed by the Lukashenka regime’s continuing violent crackdown on peaceful protesters, pro-democracy activists, and journalists”.

The sanctions restricting travel to the US apply to “high-ranking justice sector officials, law enforcement leaders and rank-and-file personnel who detained and abused peaceful demonstrators”, Blinken’s statement said.

In addition, judges and prosecutors involved in sentencing protesters and journalists, as well as academic administrators who threatened students for participation in protests were also sanctioned.

More than 33,000 people have been detained in a violent crackdown on protests against Lukashenko’s rule following a contested election last August that his opponents have said was rigged to extend his rule, according to the Reuters news service.

The crackdown has prompted Western countries to impose new sanctions on Minsk. Lukashenko has refused to step down, buttressed by support from Moscow, which sees Belarus as a buffer state against the European Union and NATO.

Previously, Washington had expanded sanctions on Belarus, targeting four entities and 40 individuals for their roles in the disputed presidential election and the government’s subsequent arrests of protesters.

The two journalists – Bakhvalava, who also goes by the last name of Andreyeva, and Chultsova – were arrested in November after police broke down the door of a Minsk apartment where they were broadcasting a livestream of a demonstration in the Belarusian capital.

Journalists Katsiaryna Andreyeva, right, and Daria Chultsova stand inside a defendants’ cage in a courtroom in Minsk, Belarus, as the court sentenced the two female journalists to two years in prison for covering a protest against the nation’s authoritarian president [AP Photo]

Addressing the court before the verdict, Bakhvalava promised to continue working for “building a Belarus that won’t have political repressions”, according to The Associated Press.

“I’m not pleading. I’m demanding acquittal for me and my colleagues,” she said, referring to other jailed journalists.

The two were charged with “organising actions rudely violating public order” – accusations they denied.

Meanwhile, a trial began Wednesday in Belarus for a bank executive who had aspired to challenge Lukashenko in last year’s election but was blocked from running due to criminal charges.

Viktor Babariko, 57, the former head of Russia-owned Belgazprombank, has been jailed since June on corruption and money laundering charges. He has dismissed the accusations, saying they were intended to prevent him from challenging Lukashenko.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies