Exclusive: U.S., UK, Canada plan sanctions on Belarusians, perhaps Friday

WASHINGTON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The United States, Britain and Canada plan to impose sanctions on Belarusian individuals following what they view as a rigged election and violence against peaceful protesters since, six sources familiar with the matter said on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO: An opposition supporter waves a historical white-red-white flag of Belarus in front of law enforcement officers during a rally to demand the resignation of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko more than a month after the disputed presidential election, in Minsk, Belarus September 20, 2020. Tut.By via REUTERS

Four of the sources, all speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S., British and Canadian sanctions could come as early as Friday.

They said the sanctions aimed to show there would be consequences for the disputed election and the treatment of protesters in Belarus, a former Soviet state where President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled for 26 years.

Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory in the Aug. 9 election. Since then, his forces have detained or driven out all of Belarus’s leading opposition figures, arrested thousands of protesters and clamped down on news reporting. He was abruptly sworn in for a sixth term on Wednesday.

The ceremony would normally have been publicized as a major state occasion but was instead held without warning. The opposition, which has staged regular mass protests since the election demanding his resignation, denounced it as illegitimate.

Local media footage showed helmeted riot police pinning protesters to the ground, and marching or carrying them away into detention. Several people were injured after water cannon were fired, the Russian news agency Interfax reported.

“Up to now, the abiding goal for U.S. and European officials has been to prevent the level of regime-instigated violence from getting out of hand,” said Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank in Washington.

“Anyone who watched the image of yesterday’s police riot on the streets of Minsk knows that Western policy has failed.”

On Sept. 1, a senior U.S. State Department official told Reuters the United States was considering imposing sanctions on seven Belarusians who it believes were involved in falsifying the results of the election and in violence against protesters.

One of the six sources said the number was now eight Belarusians, but could change.

The U.S. State Department and the Canadian foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the possibility of joint sanctions.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told parliament that Britain was preparing sanctions against those responsible for serious human rights violations in Belarus and coordinating with the United States and Canada “as a matter of urgency”.

Separately, Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said Lukashenko was not the legitimate leader of Belarus and that his “so-called inauguration” behind closed doors followed a “fraudulent” election.

The European Union said his swearing-in had gone directly against the will of the people.

Washington had hoped to impose sanctions in concert with the EU, but the bloc has been unable to achieve consensus because of an unrelated dispute over the Eastern Mediterranean.

Reporting By Arshad Mohammed and Matt Spetalnick in Washington and by Robin Emmott in Brussels; Additional reporting by John Chalmers in Brussels; Kate Holton and Elizabeth Piper in London; and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Kevin Liffey