WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama says Washington will pursue expanded sanctions against the hardline regime of Belarusian Alyaksandr Lukashenka in response to his crackdown on the country’s opposition.
The announcement comes amid renewed condemnation from Obama and European leaders of the recent sentencing of opposition presidential candidates in trials they say are politically motivated.
According to a statement issued by the White House as Obama was departing the G8 summit in France for Poland, the planned sanctions will target “select Belarusian state-owned enterprises.” They are meant to complement other sanctions on companies, as well as the travel restrictions and asset freezes for officials, that Washington announced on January 31.
“These measures are targeted against those responsible for the repression, particularly President Lukashenka, and are not directed against the people of Belarus,” the statement said.
An official from the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs told RFE/RL that the sanctions package would also impose restrictions on additional individuals and would be finalized and officially announced “within the month.”
The official would not provide details on which companies and officials would be targeted.
The measures approved in January expanded already existing U.S. sanctions on Belarus, and came in the wake of a brutal crackdown on demonstrators that followed the disputed December 19 reelection of Lukashenka.
More than 600 people, including seven of nine presidential candidates running against the man dubbed “Europe’s last dictator,” were arrested during a mass post-election rally in Minsk.
Washington’s sanctions were agreed in coordination with the European Union, which imposed visa bans and froze the assets of Lukashenka and other top-ranking officials.
In total, 158 people were prohibited from entering the EU. The list has since been expanded to include more than 20 additional people in response to the sentencing of a number of politicians who ran against Lukashenka to multi-year jail terms.
In today’s statement, Obama condemned the sentencing of Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu, Andrey Sannikau, Vital Rymasheuski, Mikalay Statkevich, and Dzmitry Vus, and said the United States “considers these candidates and the other courageous activists and candidates arrested and charged in conjunction with the crackdown on December 19 as political prisoners.”
It also said the trials of the candidates were “clearly politically motivated and failed to meet even the most minimal standards required of a fair and independent judiciary.”
In the most recent of those trials on May 26, Statkevich and Vus were sentenced to six and 5 ½ years in prison, respectively, on charges of organizing the post-election mass protest.
Numerous opposition activists have also been jailed in recent weeks, while at least seven have been released.
Former presidential candidate Dzmitry Vus in a Minsk court room on May 12
Obama was not the only world leader to condemn the continuing repression in Minsk.
In a statement released after the May 26 trial, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said, "These politically motivated sentences are yet another step backwards as regards Belarus' respect for human rights, the rule of law and democratic principles."
The French and Czech foreign ministries issued similar responses, and even Russia, traditionally an ally of Minsk, criticized the "harsh" prison sentences.
Polish foreign ministry said in a statement, “Sentencing election candidates to prison terms marks a strange precedent in contemporary Europe's development of democratic freedoms and human rights."
The Polish capital, Warsaw, is the site of summit that began today involving the heads of nearly 20 ex-communist states, as well as Obama and a number of other Western leaders.
Hosted by Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, talks are expected to take up the Arab Spring, regional economics, missile defense, and how best to prod the Belarusian government to change its ways.
Meanwhile, Lukashenka, who has offered a defiant response to Western sanctions and criticism, today appeared to take another step that could further isolate Minsk.
In criticizing Belarusian journalists who work for foreign organizations, he ordered his government to "make sure those media organizations no longer work on our territory."
His order came in response to what he described as the foreign media’s alarmist coverage of the country’s deepening financial crisis.
While he directed his harshest criticism at Russia media, which is popular in Belarus, Lukashenka said he would not name the journalists or organizations because he did not want to increase their ratings.
written by Richard Solash with agency reports