The U.S. government announced new sanctions Monday on Belarusian government officials and wealthy allies of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, calling the measures a response to the regime’s ongoing political repression and corruption.
The Treasury Department said it was sanctioning 23 people and 21 entities linked either to the violent crackdown on peaceful protests, the forcing down of a flight to detain an opposition activist in May, or ongoing efforts to finance the regime “at the expense of the Belarusian people.”
The Treasury sanctions are connected to an executive order that the White House said would enhance the “ability to impose costs on the regime.”
President Biden said in a statement that the actions of the Lukashenko regime “are an illegitimate effort to hold on to power at any price. It is the responsibility of all those who care about human rights, free and fair elections, and freedom of expression to stand against this oppression.”
The actions come on the one-year anniversary of Lukashenko’s election to a sixth term in a vote that the U.S. and the European Union say was fraudulent. It set off months of massive protests and forced his main challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, into exile.
Human rights activists say there are 610 current political prisoners in the country, and the opposition says more than 35,000 have been detained in the last year.
The U.S. says it’s sanctioning Lukashenko’s ”wallets”
The sanctions target rich business owners in Belarus that the Treasury calls Lukashenko’s “wallets,” who are involved in the oil, coal, tobacco and construction businesses.
The sanctions also block the assets of members of national and local-level Belarusian security services for violence and repression against protesters and political opposition. The individuals include officials at a detention center in Minsk, Belarus’ capital, where the U.S. says protesters and journalists are being held.
On May 23, Belarusian authorities forced a plane going from Greece to Lithuania that was crossing over Belarus’ airspace to make an emergency landing. On board was the fugitive dissident Roman Protasevich, the former editor and founder of an opposition blog and social media channel. Authorities boarded the plane and arrested Protasevich and his partner, Sofia Sapega. Both are still being detained.
The sanctions include five Belarusian officials the Treasury Department says were connected to the incident, who work in transportation and aviation or defended the flight’s grounding in parliament.
Also included in the list of sanctions is the Belarusian National Olympic Committee, which is run by Lukashenko’s son, Viktor Lukashenko. The Treasury accuses the country’s Olympic committee of being a tool to “launder funds and evade sanctions.”
The country’s Olympic team was in the news last week after sprinter Kristina Timanovskaya refused a flight home from Tokyo after publicly criticizing her coaches. She was then granted a Polish humanitarian visa. Timanovskaya said last week that her husband would join her in Poland, and that they would decide whether to seek political asylum there.
Many of the people and entities listed by the Treasury are also being sanctioned by the EU, Canada and the United Kingdom.
In a news conference Monday in Minsk, the Belarusian leader denied being a dictator and accused his opponents of plotting a coup. He said he was ready for talks with the West and that “there is no need to take up the sanction axes and pitchforks,” Reuters reported.