MINSK -- Zhana Litvina, head of the independent Belarus Association of Journalists, got an unpleasant surprise on March 14 to mark Belarus's Constitution Day.
Migration officials at Minsk's main airport refused to allow her to board a flight for Warsaw, giving no explanation.
Meanwhile, at the Minsk train station, Andrey Bandarenka, head of the independent Platforma human-rights group, was denied permission to board a train for the Polish capital, where he intended to participate in a conference.
In all, nearly a dozen Belarusian activists, independent journalists, and opposition political figures have been denied permission to travel abroad following a March 1 announcement by the Prosecutor-General's Office that anyone supporting intensified European Union sanctions against the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka could be prevented from leaving the country.
However, officials deny the existence of a "blacklist" of individuals targeted for refusal.
'List Of Hostages'
Andrey Dynko, editor of the "Nasha Niva" newspaper, found out he is among those blocked from exiting when he was turned back near the border with Lithuania on March 14.
"My case is evidence of the fact that what we're effectively dealing with here is a list of hostages," Dynko said. "It is a weird feeling to realize that you've been designated a hostage. But under the present conditions in Belarus, some might consider it an honor."
The exit refusals appear to be the latest round of tit-for-tat measures between Minsk and the European Union. Last month, the EU extended targeted individual sanctions to include 19 judges and two police officials believed to be complicit in the repression of the political opposition. In response, Minsk asked the EU ambassador and the Polish ambassador in Belarus to leave the country, prompting the EU to pull out all 27 member-state envoys in a show of solidarity.
The European Union is continuing to watch the exit-denial situation closely as the bloc's foreign ministers prepare to discuss relations with Belarus yet again at a meeting next week.
"In terms of our policy, we have made it very clear -- the policy is very principled," said Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. "We have been looking and are continuing to follow this very closely. Belarus will again be on the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Council next week when the ministers meet on Friday, March 23. And they will look into further restrictive measures as an important instrument of pressure on Belarusian authorities."
Litvina is certain that the authorities' denial of permission for activists to leave the country is a direct signal to the EU in the run-up to the March 23 session.
We must act now and use all available means to get this policy changed."
"Official Minsk is demonstrating its position by limiting the ability to exit the country," Litvina said. "It is possible the authorities consider these people 'destructive elements' -- they already adopted that term for describing their opponents several years ago. The expansion of this list will depend in large measure on events at the international level. If once again we hear a forceful recommendation to free political prisoners, then the pressure [on the opposition] within Belarus itself will be intensified."
Mikhail Yanchuk, a correspondent for the Warsaw-based Belsat television channel, was stopped on a train at the border town of Brest on March 14, although he was allowed to travel freely just one week before.
"This seems to be proof that this list is growing week by week and many of our colleagues may be added to it," Yanchuk said. "So we must act now and use all available means to get this policy changed. It would appear that this is a continuation of the policy of targeted sanction and pressure against journalists with the goal of frightening everyone else."
The Old End-Around
Ironically, some activists have circumvented the de facto travel ban by leaving the country across the border with Russia, which is open because of the customs union agreement between the two countries.
On March 15, Litvina's Belarus Association of Journalists issued a statement condemning restrictions on journalists' freedom of movement and increased harassment by state security organs. On March 1, Bandarenka's Platforma NGO called on the EU to include all prison and jail officials on the EU targeted-sanctions list for their role in "the torture, cruel, inhuman, and humiliating treatment of citizens of our country."
EU spokeswoman Kocijancic called on authorities in Minsk to back away from their new policy.
"The European Union has made its position very clear," Kocijancic said. "We believe that all harassment of members of the opposition and of civil society must stop, and this also includes their freedom of movement. There can't be prohibitions of their freedom of movement."
Written in Prague by Robert Coalson based on reporting by Ales Dashchynski in Minsk, with contributions by Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels