The United States, following the lead of most European Union member countries, has banned U.S. visits by the president of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko and top officials of his government. The State Department said the action was taken because of the deteriorating human rights situation in the former Soviet republic.
The decision will bar the issuance of visas for official or personal travel to the United States by President Lukashenko and seven of his top associates including the country's prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister.
In a written statement, State Department spokeswoman Lynn Cassel said the "extraordinary" action was being taken in view of the "continuing erosion of human rights and democratic principles" in Belarus. She cited in particular the forced shutdown of the human rights monitoring mission in Minsk of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE.
Ms. Cassel said the United States will monitor the situation in Belarus, and in particular whether the OSCE observers are allowed to return, in determining whether to continue the visa restrictions. She said Belarus must undertake political liberalization and respect for human rights if it hopes to improve relations with the international community and to end what she termed its "self imposed isolation."
A week ago, all European Union member countries with the exception of Portugal imposed similar travel bans on Mr. Lukasheko and his colleagues, citing the departure of the last member of the OSCE mission in October. A few days earlier, the Czech Republic refused to issue a visa for Mr. Lukashenko to attend events of the NATO summit in Prague.
The Belarussian leader, widely described as Europe's last dictator, has been increasingly isolated since declaring himself the winner of a presidential election last year that the OSCE said was fraudulent.
The Bush administration has been sharply critical of the Lukashenko government in recent months, for among other things harassment of the independent media and a repressive law on religion passed by the government-controlled parliament in Minsk and signed by the president at the end of last month.
The visa ban was authorized by Secretary of State Colin Powell under terms of U.S. immigration law. Senior Belarussian officials may still visit New York for legitimate United Nations business under the United States' host-country obligations to the U.N.