The European Union has imposed wide-ranging economic sanctions on Belarus in response to what the bloc called the “escalation of serious human rights violations”, including the detention of Roman Protasevich.
Thursday’s sanctions target the economy but are also aimed at hitting President Alexander Lukashenko and his allies.
Protasevich, a journalist and activist, was arrested along with his girlfriend on May 23 after Belarusian flight controllers ordered a Ryanair jet travelling from Greece to Lithuania to land in Minsk.
The latest sanctions target industries, including potash – a common fertiliser ingredient, tobacco, and petroleum, and are far stricter than measures imposed in the past.
“Trade in petroleum products, potassium chloride [potash], and goods used for the production or manufacturing of tobacco products is restricted,” the EU said in a statement.
The sanctions also include a ban on sales to Belarus of equipment and software that can be used to monitor the internet and phone calls.
Belarus’s access to EU capital markets will also be restricted and payments to the country’s public sector by the European Investment Bank halted.
EU ups pressure on Minsk
The EU has gradually ratcheted up sanctions since Lukashenko won a sixth term last August in disputed elections.
The 27-nation bloc, which views Lukashenko’s win last year as fraudulent, has taken a tougher line since the Ryanair incident, and over the country’s alleged use of migrants and refugees to pressure neighbouring Lithuania, which has provided a safe haven to Belarusian opposition figures and is one of Lukashenko’s most vocal critics.
Diplomats told Reuters news agency the decision to impose harsher sanctions was taken with extraordinary speed, reflecting the gravity of the situation.
On Monday, EU foreign ministers imposed travel bans and asset freezes on 78 Belarus officials and froze the assets of eight “entities”, which are usually companies, banks, or associations.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the measures take aim at “economic areas that are of particular significance for Belarus and for the regime’s income”.
A total of 166 people and 15 entities in Belarus are now under EU restrictive measures.
Since the May 23 flight scandal, the EU has banned overflights of Belarusian territory by its airlines and banished Belarusian carriers from its airspace.
The United States, the United Kingdom and Canada have also imposed sanctions on senior Belarus officials.
The Belarusian foreign ministry said the measures would hurt common people and “border on the declaration of an economic war”. It warned that Minsk would be forced to take retaliatory measures that would hurt Western companies.
Belarus has been shaken by months of protests fuelled by Lukashenko’s re-election.
The authorities responded with a massive crackdown that saw tens of thousands of people arrested. Most opposition leaders have been jailed or forced to leave the country.
Since he was pulled off the Ryanair flight in Minsk, Protasevich has been paraded on state TV, tearfully apologising for his actions and praising Lukashenko.
His parents, members of the opposition and others in the West believe he spoke under duress, with some saying there were signs he had been beaten.
In a separate development, the trial of Sergei Tikhanovsky – the jailed husband of Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, began on Thursday.
Tsikhanouskaya, who was arrested in May last year and is accused of organising mass unrest, among other things, had wanted to run in presidential elections.
His trial is closed to the media.