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The Biden government said late Friday that it would impose economic sanctions on certain state-owned companies in Belarus, the latest diplomatic backlash by a Western government after the country’s authoritarian leader knocked down a European passenger jet last weekend.
The plane, a Ryanair Boeing 737 flying from Greece to Lithuania, was flying through Belarusian airspace on Sunday when it was diverted and forced to land in the capital Minsk with a fighter escort. Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian opposition journalist who lived in exile abroad, was arrested with his girlfriend after the plane landed.
Belarusian President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, a brutal and eccentric strong man, has alleged that he diverted the plane because of a bomb threat sent by email so as not to arrest Mr. Protasevich. However, a Swiss email provider said that the email quoted by the Belarusian authorities was sent after the plane had already been diverted.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Friday evening that sanctions against nine Belarusian state-owned companies that had been lifted by the Treasury Department would be reinstated on June 3.
The United States, along with the European Union and other allies, is developing a list of sanctions to be imposed on members of Mr Lukashenko’s government for “ongoing human rights violations and corruption, the 2020 election fraud, and the events of Sept. May, ”she added.
The allegation of electoral fraud related to last summer when Mr. Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, claimed to have won 80 percent of the vote in a sham election. His claim led to mass demonstrations where the police cracked down on them.
The spokesman for the government of Mr. Lukashenko could not be reached immediately on Saturday for comment.
The imprisoned journalist Protasevich co-founded a telegram channel, which is a popular opposition center in Belarus and which helped mobilize the protests last year. Mr Biden has called for the 26-year-old’s release, stating that his arrest and a video he recently shot while in state custody – apparently under duress – were “shameful attacks on both political disagreement and freedom of the press. ”
In addition to the sanctions announced on Friday, the United States will also suspend the application of a 2019 aviation agreement with Belarus and will recently advise American citizens not to travel to the country, Ms Psaki said in the statement.
“We are taking 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,” she said.