MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Belarus' authoritarian government has stepped up its crackdown on dissent by barring the regime's critics from foreign trips, some of those affected said Thursday.
Zhanna Litvina, the head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, a media freedom watchdog, said authorities banned her from leaving for Warsaw on Thursday. "I felt like a North Korean citizen in the center of Europe," she said.
Several other critics of Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko say they have been denied permission to go on foreign trips during the past week, learning about it once they were already at the airport.
Officials have refused to comment on reports the government has compiled a list of journalists, opposition activists and human rights defenders forbidden to leave the 10-million nation wedged between Russia and Poland.
"The government's action is illegal," said Valentin Stefanovich, the head of Vyasna rights center. "It amounts to a list of hostages."
The ban would contradict a Belarusian law that only allows authorities to deny exit for debtors, draft dodgers and criminal suspects.
Lukashenko, who Western rights group have called Europe's last dictator, has been in office since 1994. He has relentlessly cracked down on opposition groups and independent media.
Belarusian rights activists say that 12 opposition activists, including two former presidential candidates, are in prison on political charges.
Last month, the European Union introduced new sanctions against Belarus over repression of the political opposition and recalled its envoys from the Belarusian capital. The move came after Belarus asked the head of the EU's delegation in Minsk and the Polish ambassador to leave and said it was withdrawing its own ambassadors from Brussels and Warsaw.