The UK has imposed targeted sanctions on Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko who oversaw a brutal crackdown on protesters following his dubious victory in last month’s presidential elections
Sanctions announced on Tuesday by the British government are introduced under the country’s new human rights sanctions regime, in a coordinated move with Canada.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on Tuesday described the move as a “strong message” to the Lukashenko regime.
“We don’t accept the results of this rigged election,” he said.
“We will hold those responsible for the thuggery deployed against the Belarusian people to account and we will stand up for our values of democracy and human rights.”
Opposition protests engulfed Belarusian cities in response to a landslide win for Mr Lukashenko in the election, which is widely viewed as rigged.
Riot police responded with a vicious crackdown which saw thousands detained, hundreds injured and hundreds more tortured in police custody.
A travel ban and asset freeze have now been imposed on Mr Lukashenko, his son and national security advisor Viktor, as well as six other senior officials including the head of the notorious riot police and the interior ministry.
The European Union is also considering sanctions against Mr Lukashenko and his entourage but discussions were stalled by Cyprus, which is anxious for a tougher EU stance against Turkey.
Earlier on Tuesday, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, became the first world leader to meet with exiled Belarusian opposition Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in a rare gesture of defiance against Mr Lukashenko who was sworn in for a new term in office last week.
Mrs Tsikhanouskaya, a former presidential candidate, was forced to flee Belarus the day after the election after receiving threats against her family.
Mr Macron did not elaborate on the contents of his talks with Mrs Tsikhanouskaya in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius but said:
“We need to be pragmatic and support the Belarusian people and we will do our best, believe me.” France like other EU member countries have refused to recognise Mr Lukashenko as a legitimate president.
Opposition protests in Belarus have now entered their seventh week, with tens of thousands marching in major cities every weekend and staging acts of civil disobedience throughout the week.
Mrs Tsikhanouskaya in remarks released by her press office on Tuesday called for new presidential elections this year as well as internationally mediated talks to avoid more violence and see through a peaceful transition of power.
“People’s lives are at stake,” she said, thanking President Macron for “supporting Belarusians in our fight for freedom.”
“The further we descend into the crisis, the more victims there will be _ that’s why we need to sit down for talks as soon as possible.”
Mrs Tsikhanouskaya emerged as an unlikely protest leader earlier this year when her husband, a popular blogger, was barred from running for president and subsequently jailed.
The stay-at-home mum led an impressive election campaign, tapping into deep-seated discontent and fatigue with Mr Lukashenko’s 26 year-long rule.
Mr Lukashenko has defended the brutal police crackdown and vowed to stay in power until his death.
Mrs Tsikhanouskaya said on Tuesday that she was prepared to negotiate with anyone, including Russia, which has backed the Belarusian 66-year old dictator, to see a peaceful transition in her home country.
After initial hesitation, Russia in recent weeks threw its weight behind Mr Lukashenko, hosting him in the Kremlin and offering him a $1.5 billion loan.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, in a video address to a Russia-Belarusian conference in Minsk on Tuesday said that Russia would like to expand economic cooperation with the Belarusian government which, he lamented, faces “unprecedented foreign pressure” in the wake of the elections.