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Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)

The European Union, the United States, and key Western allies have further expanded their sanctions against Belarus's political and economic elite over alleged antidemocratic behavior, rights violations, and the exploitation of migrants by strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime.

The European Union said ministers at a council meeting on December 2 adopted the bloc's fifth round of sanctions since tensions skyrocketed after Lukashenka's widely disputed reelection in August last year and with a crisis continuing over thousands of Middle Eastern migrants amassed at Belarus's border with EU member Poland.

Belarus has violently cracked down on protesters, with thousands of detentions following the August 2020 election that demonstrators and opposition figures say was rigged to extend Lukashenka's 26-year rule. There have also been credible reports of torture and ill-treatment, and several people have died.

Belarus's Foreign Ministry responded to the latest sanctions announcements by vowing "harsh and asymmetrical" steps in response.

"The depth of the absurdity of the EU's decision on the latest sanctions against sovereign Belarus and its very content is by now difficult to comprehend," the ministry in Minsk said.

The new EU sanctions target 17 individuals and 11 entities thought to be responsible for the crisis at the EU-Belarus border, and should come into effect on their publication later in the day in the EU's Official Journal, a legal registry. In total, the EU has so far targeted 183 Belarusian individuals and 26 entities with sanctions.

Britain, the United States, and Canada also announced their own punitive measures targeting Belarusian entities including a complete asset freeze on a global leader in potash fertilizer, OJSC Belaruskali.

In a joint statement, the EU, Britain, Canada, and the United States cited "continuing attacks on human rights and fundamental freedoms in Belarus, disregard for international norms and repeated acts of repression."

The U.S. Treasury said its fifth round of sanctions was blocking 20 individuals, 12 entities, and three aircraft over "the Lukashenka regime’s blatant disregard for international norms and the well-being of its own citizens."

It cited the Belarusian authorities' "migrant smuggling and victimization of migrants" since Lukashenka threatened last summer to erode EU border security.

​The U.S. added a third son of Lukashenka's -- businessman Dzmitry -- along with the President's Sports Club that he's chaired since 2005, to its list.​

The British government singled out its asset ban on Belarusian potash fertilizer company OJSC Belaruskali as useful to "target a major source of revenue and foreign currency" for the Lukashenka regime.

"These sanctions continue to target important sources of revenue to the Lukashenka regime and place severe restrictions on those responsible for some of the worst antidemocratic acts in Belarus," British Foreign Minister Liz Truss said.

​The newest targets of the Western sanctions also include state air carrier Belavia, as well as senior border guard and law enforcement officials, judges and prosecutors, and "propagandists" for Lukashenka's regime.​

Last week, exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya praised the EU for imposing four rounds of sanctions but called the measures "leaky" and urged "more decisive actions" to increase pressure "on the enterprises that have been monopolized by Lukashenka and his family."

Previous EU sanctions already target Lukashenka and two of his sons.

EU officials have accused Lukashenka of "weaponizing" vulnerable migrants from Iraq and other countries by transporting them with added flights from the Middle East and encouraging them to try to claim asylum at Belarus's borders with Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland.

Lukashenka accuses the European Union of failing to meet international asylum laws by refusing the migrants entry, even as he's admitted bringing migrants to the EU's frontier.

Migrants Stuck In Bitter Cold Outside Overflowing Warehouse As Belarus Moves Them From Polish Border Camps
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Belarusian authorities have recently cleared the makeshift migrant camps at the border and transferred about 2,000 people to a warehouse turned into shelter, while allowing a series of repatriation flights to Iraq.

EU officials are already said to be working on a possible sixth round of sanctions against Belarus, diplomatic sources have said.

The crisis on the EU-Belarus border has also contributed to the bloc's tensions with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, a longtime Lukashenka ally who has ordered air patrols over Belarus's border since the stalemate intensified.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP
Azerbaijani oppositionist Tofiq Yaqublu (file photo)

BAKU -- Relatives of Tofiq Yaqublu say the opposition politician was severely beaten by police and other activists are missing after a rally demanding the immediate release from prison of hungry striking opposition activist Saleh Rustamli..

Yaqublu, a member of the Coordination Center of Azerbaijan's Democratic Forces' National Council and a leading member of the opposition Musavat party, was rushed to hospital late on December 1 after he was released from custody with deep bruises on his face and body, his daugthter Nigar Hazi told RFE/RL on December 2.

Hazi posted a video showing the signs of the beating -- especially his bruised and swolled face -- on YouTube, sparking a public outcry.

On the video, Yaqublu says that police beat him after they detained him.

Interior Ministry spokesman Elsad Haciyev said on December 2 that "allegations that Yaqublu was beaten while in police custody are groundless."

Representatives of the opposition Popular Front of Azerbaijan (AXCP) party told RFE/RL that two party activists, Pasa Dadaszade and Saqif Qurbanov, were also severely beaten by police after they were detained at the rally. They say that Dadaszade suffered several fractures to one of his hands.

The whereabouts of four other activists -- Rustam Ismayilbeyli, Ilhan Huseyn, Sayyad Quliyev, and Elxan Aliyev -- have been unknown since they were detained at the demonstration, their relatives told RFE/RL on December 2.

Opponents of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Western countries, and international human rights groups say his government has persistently persecuted critics, political foes, independent media outlets, and civic activists.

Aliyev, who has ruled the nation of almost 10 million people since shortly before the death of his father and predecessor, Heydar Aliyev, in 2003, has shrugged off the criticism.

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