U.S. hits dozens of Belarusians with visa restrictions for undermining democracy

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday imposed visa restrictions on 43 Belarusians, including high-ranking justice officials and other government personnel, accusing them of undermining democracy in Belarus.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the United States remains alarmed by the government of President Alexander Lukashenko's continued violent crackdown on protesters, activists, and journalists.

"The United States continues to support international efforts to independently investigate electoral irregularities in Belarus, the human rights abuses surrounding the election, and the crackdown that has followed," Blinken said.

"We stand with the brave people of Belarus and support their right to free and fair elections," he added.

Thursday's move is the latest in a series of punitive actions by the United States targeting those it accuses of being responsible for undermining Belarusian democracy.

The action targets law enforcement leaders and personnel the State Department accused of detaining and abusing peaceful demonstrators, as well as judges and prosecutors allegedly involved in sentencing protesters and journalists to prison, among others.

The State Department did not name those designated. The action makes them generally ineligible for entry into the United States.

More than 33,000 people have been detained in a violent crackdown on protests against Lukashenko's rule following a contested election last August that his opponents say was rigged to extend his rule. He has been in office since 1994.

The crackdown prompted Western countries to impose new sanctions on Minsk. Lukashenko has refused to step down, buttressed by support from Moscow, which sees Belarus as a buffer state against the European Union and NATO.

In December, Washington expanded sanctions on Belarus, targeting four entities and 40 individuals over their roles in a disputed presidential election and the government’s subsequent crackdown on protesters, blacklisting Belarus' central election commission, among others.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Lisa Lambert; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Leslie Adler and Marguerita Choy)