Belarus' riot police officers watch opposition supporters during a gathering to support candidates seeking to challenge President Alexander Lukashenko in August's polls in Minsk on June 19, 2020.
CNN  — 

The State Department expressed concern at crackdowns on protesters and journalists after two candidates opposing that country’s leader – nicknamed “Europe’s last dictator” – were disqualified from the race.

According to reports, hundreds have been violently dispersed and arrested in Belarus amid protests about the exclusion of the candidates running against Alexander Lukashenko. Journalists were among those detained.

“We are deeply concerned about the recent reports of mass arrests and detentions of peaceful activists and journalists, following the disqualification of two prominent opposition candidates in the lead up to the August presidential elections,” a spokesperson said in response to an inquiry from CNN.

“We continue to urge the Government of Belarus to take steps to improve its record with respect to human rights and democracy, and meet its OSCE commitments,” they said. “Respecting fundamental freedoms, including the freedoms of peaceful assembly, expression, and association is crucial to strengthening the U.S.-Belarus bilateral relationship.”

In a statement on Belarus National Day on July 3, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the “government of Belarus to do everything in its power to ensure the upcoming elections are free and fair.”

“This includes the right of a diverse range of candidates to participate in the campaign, the right of citizens to assemble peacefully and speak freely, and open and fair ballot counting. All of these fundamental freedoms are necessary to ensure the continued independence and sovereignty of Belarus,” he said.

“The United States is encouraged by the growing relationship between our two nations and is committed to assisting Belarus to develop and diversify its economy. The United States reiterates its commitment to working with all Belarusians as you build a bright, secure, and democratic future,” Pompeo said.

Washington and Minsk have taken steps to normalize diplomatic relations. In February, Pompeo became the most senior US government official to visit the country in decades and met with the Belarusian strongman, who has ruled the country since 1994.

In late April, the White House announced its nominee for US Ambassador to Belarus. If confirmed, they would be the first US Ambassador in Minsk since 2008, when the Belarusian government expelled the ambassador and 30 out of 35 US diplomats. The State Department announced its intent to exchange ambassadors in September 2019.