U.S. Hits Belarus With Sanctions, Says Olympic Athlete 'Threatened' in Dissent Crackdown

The U.S. on Monday imposed new sanctions against Belarus after accusing the government of committing several human rights violations, including a recent incident at the Tokyo Olympic Games when officials threatened to remove a Belarusian sprinter from the national team and send her home over criticism of its coaches.

President Joe Biden signed an executive order Monday targeting President Alexander Lukashenko over an ongoing "assault against the democratic aspirations and human rights of the Belarusian people."

The sanctions, imposed by the U.S. Treasury, are the largest to date against the country's authoritarian government. They are aimed at key institutions and supporters of Lukashenko, including the Belarusian National Olympic Committee, business leaders and one of Belarus' largest state-owned enterprises.

"The United States will continue to stand up for human rights and free expression, while holding the Lukashenka regime accountable, in concert with our allies and partners," Biden said in the executive order.

"We are issuing a new Executive Order that enhances our ability to impose costs on the regime and announcing new sanctions against Belarusian individuals and entities for their role in attacks on democracy and human rights, transnational repression, and corruption," he added.

The new sanctions were imposed on the one-year anniversary of Belarus' last presidential election. The U.S. and opposition activists have accused Lukashenko of rigging the contest in order to stay in power.

Lukashenko, who has been dubbed Europe's "last dictator," has increasingly cracked down on political dissent since protests erupted after the election.

Belarus president sanctions
The U.S. on Monday imposed new sanctions against Belarus. Above, President Alexander Lukashenko at a press conference in Minsk on August 9. PAVEL ORLOVSKY/BELTA/AFP/Getty Images

In May, Lukashenko's government came under international scrutiny after it intercepted a Ryanair plane and arrested an opposition activist and his girlfriend on board. Roman Protasevich, the 26-year-old detained journalist, formerly worked for the opposition Telegram channel Nexta, which broadcast news updates and footage from the mass protests that took place across the country.

The move was condemned by the international community and prompted the U.S., U.K., the European Union and Canada to impose new sanctions against the country in June.

The Biden administration said Monday that since then the regime has "further expanded its repression, including by threatening the safety of an Olympic athlete outside its borders," according to the executive order.

Last week, the country again became the focus of international attention when Belarusian Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya accused officials of removing her from the Tokyo Olympics and trying to put her on a plane back to Belarus after she criticized the team's management on social media.

Tsimanouskaya was also one of several Belarusian sports figures who publicly criticized violence against protesters during last year's demonstrations, according to Agence France-Presse.

A harsh state-run media campaign against Tsimanouskaya, 24, made the athlete think her life would be in danger if she returned to Belarus from Tokyo. Instead, she was granted a humanitarian visa in Poland.

With Monday's sanctions, the Biden administration is calling on the Lukashenko regime to stop targeting activists and dissidents, permit an international investigation into the Ryanair flight diversion, release all political prisoners and implement a system for free and fair elections.

"Absent such steps, the U.S. government will continue to use this E.O. and other authorities to impose costs on the Lukashenka regime and its support network for enabling corruption, human rights abuses, transnational repression, and attacks against democratic freedoms and international norms," the White House said.