European Union slaps more sanctions on Belarus over alleged human rights abuses

The European Union has slapped more sanctions on Belarus' authoritarian regime over what it called continued human rights abuses.

EU foreign ministers on Friday placed an asset freeze and visa sanctions on 12 more of the country's officials, seeking to increase the pressure on President Alexander Lukashenko's government for its "continued lack of respect for human rights, democracy and rule of law." Over 200 people now face such EU sanctions.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called Lukashenko "Europe's last dictator," adding that "we cannot stand by and watch that in Europe people are suppressed and whole families have to suffer."

Lukashenko has been in office since 1994. He has relentlessly cracked down on opposition groups and independent media.

Belarusian rights activists say that 12 opposition activists, including two former presidential candidates, are in prison on political charges.

Last month, the EU recalled its envoys from the Belarusian capital. The move came after Belarus asked the head of the EU's delegation in Minsk and the Polish ambassador to leave and said it was withdrawing its own ambassadors from Brussels and Warsaw.

Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh on Friday harshly criticized the widened EU sanctions, saying that the EU has "fallen hostage to the logic of coercion and blackmail."

He said Belarus would retaliate, adding that it "sees no need" for the recalled EU ambassadors to return.

Belarus' first post-Soviet leader Stanislav Shushkevich told The Associated Press that the EU had "slapped Lukashenko on the wrist,"

"The sanctions against Lukashenko's businessmen are very painful and an efficient instrument against the man who spits at the European standards and values."

Anatoly Lebedko, the head of the opposition United Civil Party, predicted that Lukashenko would likely intensify his crackdown on dissent ahead of the parliamentary elections in the fall.

"The government would likely strike at the opposition, further strengthening repressions," he told the AP.