TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Belarus' authoritarian president on Tuesday banned citizens from renewing their passports while staying abroad, which could force those who fled the country amid growing repression to return to maintain their travel documents.
An estimated 200-300,000 Belarusians have left the country in the last three years since massive protests against an election that returned President Alexander Lukashenko to office led to a harsh crackdown on the political opposition.
The election results were widely regarded as manipulated.
Lukashenko's decree stated that a Belarusian passport can only be renewed where the holder was a registered resident before leaving the country.
Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to Lithuania after challenging Lukashenko in the 2020 election, warned Belarusians, saying, "even if your passport expires, you should not return to your home country if you risk persecution.”
Tsikhanouskaya told The Associated Press that Poland and Lithuania have issued so-called “foreigner passports” to Belarusians that allow them to stay in those countries.
The Belarusian human rights group Viasna says more than 1,500 people are currently behind bars as political prisoners.
Journalists and activists in Belarus have faced large-scale repression since the August 2020 vote that handed a sixth term to Lukashenko.