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US Imposes Visa Ban on Belarussian President Lukashenko - 2002-11-22

The United States says it will follow the lead of most European Union countries and impose a visa ban on Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko and other top members of his government. The move will increase the isolation of the government in Minsk, which has been strongly criticized in Washington and elsewhere for human rights abuses.

State Department officials say the visa ban, which will apply to Mr. Lukashenko and several key associates, is being drafted by U.S. legal experts and could be announced by early next week.

The comments here follow a decision Tuesday by European Union countries, with the exception of Portugal, to prevent the entry or transit through their territories of senior Belarussian figures including the president.

State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the United States welcomes the EU action and is preparing to implement a similar policy.

The actions underline the growing isolation of Mr. Lukashenko, a former Soviet Union functionary who has increasingly run his country in the Soviet style since coming to power in 1994.

Spokesman Reeker listed a series of U.S. concerns about Mr. Lukashenko's government, including a repressive law on religion that took effect late last month, and the expulsion of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observers from the country after that organization said his re-election in 2001 had been fraudulent.

The Czech Republic barred Mr. Lukashenko from attending this week's NATO summit in Prague, an action that prompted an angry condemnation of both the Czech government and the western alliance by the Belarussian leader.

He called his exclusion an "ignominious act" reminiscent of the Cold War, and accusing his critics of hypocrisy, double standards and "primitive blackmail."

The Czech government said it was convinced fundamental rights and freedoms are not being protected in Belarus and that Mr. Lukashenko would have used his visit to the summit to "legitimize" his position at home.