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Senators make stop in Vilnius, call for Belarus to release dissident journalist

Senators make stop in Vilnius, call for Belarus to release dissident journalist
© Greg Nash

A bipartisan group of senators stopped in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius to call for neighboring Belarus to release a dissident journalist it detained last month.

Sens. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyBipartisan infrastructure deal takes fire from left and right Democrats mull overhaul of sweeping election bill Rising crime rejuvenates gun control debate on campaign trail MORE (D-Conn.), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanG-7 summit exposes incoherence of US foreign policy Senate panel unanimously advances key Biden cyber nominees Hillicon Valley: Big Tech critic Lina Khan named chair of the FTC | Lawmakers urge Biden to be tough on cyber during summit with Putin | TSA working on additional security regulations following Colonial Pipeline hack MORE (R-Ohio) and Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenCosmetic chemicals need a makeover How Biden can get the infrastructure bill through Congress Pelosi: 'No intention' of abandoning Democrats' infrastructure goals MORE (D-N.J.) made a special appearance in Vilnius to call for the release of Ramam Pratasevich, a 26-year-old opposition activist and journalist, and his partner, Sofia Sapega.

“I am honored to stand with the people of Belarus as we support them in their efforts to pursue freedom, democracy, and free and fair elections as well as Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a courageous woman who has shown the world that one person can stand up and make a difference,” tweeted Portman, referencing another Belarusian opposition leader. 

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“Today we call for the immediate release of Raman Pratasevich and his partner. There is no excuse for their apprehension and detention and there is no country in the world that should excuse this kind of behavior,” Portman added.

"We are united in fierce rebuke to Lukashenka’s oppression & illegal actions. As chair of the SFRC Europe Subcommittee I am committed to doing all I can to support her efforts and empower the people of Belarus fighting for democracy," added Shaheen, referring to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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The unscheduled visit marks the latest effort by U.S. lawmakers to pressure Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to release Pratasevich. 

Lukashenko drew international ire last month when Belarus reportedly called in a bomb threat and scrambled a fighter jet to force a Ryanair flight traveling from Greece to Lithuania to land once it was in Belarusian airspace. Pratasevich, who was on the flight, was promptly arrested once the plane was on the ground.

The U.S. on Friday announced it would reimpose full blocking sanctions against nine state-owned enterprises in Belarus and put together an executive order to give President BidenJoe BidenJapan to possibly ease COVID-19 restrictions before Olympics 14 Republicans vote against making Juneteenth a federal holiday China supplies millions of vaccine doses to developing nations in Asia MORE the power to slap additional punishments on Lukashenko. 

Portman said more must be done to pressure Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994 and brutally quelled protests that erupted after his disputed victory in the country’s 2020 presidential election.

“While there already are some sanctions in place, they are clearly not effective enough. I support increased sanctions on places where the Lukashenko regime will feel pain and I hope that on our next trip we will have the opportunity to see free and fair elections in Belarus,” he said.