The UK has imposed sanctions on the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, his son and six other senior government officials judged to be responsible for rigging the August presidential poll and suppressing subsequent street protests.
The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, announced the sanctions on Tuesday in coordination with a similar move from Canada. “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,” he said.
The sanctions include an asset freeze and travel ban imposed on Lukashenko himself. It is the first time that Britain’s new sanctions regime developed in the wake of Brexit has imposed sanctions on a serving president. The other targets include Lukashenko’s son Victor and Igor Sergeenko, head of the presidential administration.
The Foreign Office said: “Alexander Lukashenko’s regime is responsible for a string of human rights violations against opposition figures, media and the people of Belarus in the wake of rigged elections. Despite numerous calls from the international community, he has refused to engage in dialogue with the opposition, choosing instead to double down on his violent repression.”
The statement added: “The sanctions have been imposed in response to the torture and mistreatment of hundreds of peaceful protestors in custody following the fraudulent presidential elections. The Belarusian authorities have taken no action to hold those responsible to account. Many opposition figures have been arrested or forcibly deported and denied re-entry, in a clear show of Lukashenko’s disdain for dialogue with the opposition and for basic human rights.”
The move came after pressure from Lithuania and Poland, the two countries in the European Union most supportive of the protests, but it is not yet clear whether the US is taking the same steps.
More than 12,000 people have been arrested since Lukashenko was declared the landslide winner in the 9 August election that the opposition denounced as rigged. Government officials barred British embassy observers from watching the poll.
The British-Canadian decision was announced shortly after the French president, Emmanuel Macron, on a visit to Lithuania, met the opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in a move that takes her closer to official recognition by Europe as the legitimate leader of Belarus.
Tikhanovskaya, forced into exile in Lithuania under pressure from Lukashenko, said after meeting Macron that he had promised to help negotiate the release of those jailed in Belarus.
Macron’s meeting was a display of solidarity after the EU was collectively unable to reach agreement on sanctions against Belarus after Cyprus said it would veto the move until the EU also agreed to put sanctions on Turkey as part of a separate dispute over drilling rights in the gas fields of the eastern Mediterranean.
The EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, has expressed deep personal frustration at the EU’s inability to show rapid solidarity with the Belarus opposition. It will not be lost on him that the UK and Canada have been able to act. There are also doubts whether Germany wants to impose sanctions on the president on the basis that it might close an avenue of discussion.
The meeting between Macron and Tikhanovskaya comes two days after tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Belarus in the latest in a string of protests demanding Lukashenko’s resignation.
The demonstrations – often led by women – are the largest in the former Soviet state’s independent history.
Macron has argued for an entente with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, but his initiative has been weakened by Putin’s support for Lukashenko.
Tikhanovskaya reported Macron “said that time is very important since many people are suffering from the regime, many people find themselves in jail, and he will do everything to help free all political prisoners”.