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White House Slaps Sanctions On Belarus Following Brazen Arrest Of Opposition Figure

The White House on Friday night announced a series of sanctions against Belarus for its forced landing of a Ryanair commercial flight and the subsequent removal and arrest of opposition journalist Roman Protasevich.

In a statement, White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the country's action "a direct affront to international norms."

The Sunday flight diversion, made under the false pretense of a bomb being onboard the aircraft, comes as the government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko faces growing outcry from the West for the nation's recent crackdowns on free speech and public dissent.

"These events took place amid an escalating wave of repression by the Lukashenka regime against the aspirations of the people of Belarus for democracy and human rights," Psaki said in a statement.

In response to Protasevich's arrest, Psaki said the United States had issued a travel advisory urging U.S. citizens not to travel to Belarus, would reimpose sanctions on nine Belarusian state-owned enterprises, and would develop increased sanctions against the Eastern European nation's government, among other actions.

"We take these measures, together with our partners and Allies, to hold the regime accountable for its actions and to demonstrate our commitment to the aspirations of the people of Belarus," Psaki said. "We call on Lukashenka to allow a credible international investigation into the events of May 23, immediately release all political prisoners, and enter into a comprehensive and genuine political dialogue with the leaders of the democratic opposition and civil society groups that leads to the conduct of free and fair Presidential elections under [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] auspices and monitoring."

The 26-year-old Protasevich became a political activist as a teenager. During widespread anti-government protests last year, Protasevich became a key figure among opposition activists, utilizing the encrypted messaging app Telegram to organize demonstrations.

Lukashenko, a six-term authoritarian whose most recent election win was marred by accusations of ballot rigging, has fashioned himself as an international strongman and is often referred to as Europe's last dictator. In last year's Belarusian presidential election, Lukashenko declared himself the winner of the race, claiming a landslide victory with a jaw-dropping 80% of the vote.

His widely disputed reelection sparked international outrage and was the impetus of massive protests on the streets of Minsk. Thousands of protesters were arrested for their involvement in the civil unrest and others were exiled from the state.

While a number of developed nations have sharply criticized Lukashenko's harsh rejection of fundamental democratic principles like free speech, Lukashenko has found allyship in fellow a authoritarian leader, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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