FOLLOWING an election which was neither free nor fair and which saw Alexander Lukashenko – “Europe’s last dictator” – claim a sixth term, Belarus has been gripped by a month of widespread protests.

We watched as the lead up to the vote saw opposition figures and candidates unlawfully jailed, while others fled the country. We watched as the deeply unpopular Lukashenko claimed he won 80% of the vote, extending his already 26-year tenure. We watched as the main opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, fled to Lithuania for her safety. It’s high time for the UK Government to stop watching and start acting.

As we would expect from a regime which has long been known as a serial human rights violator, the brave protesters calling for Lukashenko to step down have faced widespread police brutality, unlawful assault and detainment. Thousands have been arrested and protesters have died as a result of injuries sustained in the regime’s crackdown. At the same time, thousands of workers have joined nationwide strikes to protest the results of the fraudulent election and the violent crackdown on protesters which ensued. I have been appalled to hear that employees at state-run factories have been threatened with fines, dismissal or even criminal prosecution if they participate.

The human rights situation in Belarus should concern us all. In the run up to the election, opposition candidates and members of their campaign teams were subject to unlawful detention by police and were blocked from officially registering as candidates for the election, while independent election observers were barred and detained.

Lukashenko’s regime has made a concerted effort to restrict the free flow of information and the freedom of expression, with many political activists and journalists facing arrest, harassment and the confiscation of equipment. There have even been internet shutdowns and many social media platforms and news websites have been blocked. As UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet has noted, this is particularly worrying in the context of the pandemic, as “people might feel compelled to express dissent online rather than on the streets”.

Ms Bachelet has also condemned the heavy crackdown of Lukashenko’s regime towards protesters and their failure to listen to the people’s grievances. The mass detentions and violence towards peaceful protesters by the Belarusian security forces violate fundamental human rights, including the freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly. The blocking of strike action is equally indefensible and infringes on workers’ rights.

Due process and rule of law have been thrown out the window. That such a flagrant suppression of fundamental human rights is occurring in a European country on our doorstep is deplorable. As defenders of the international rules-based system, we must step in. I welcomed the condemnation of the fraudulent election and deplorable violence by the UK Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab.

However, words alone are not enough. The people of Belarus need and deserve action.

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So far, the UK Government has done disgracefully little on this front. Indeed, as recently as June 29, General Sir Nick Carter telephoned his Belarusian counterpart, Major General Alexander Volfovich, to discuss “the current state and prospects for the development of bilateral military co-operation” – a fact that should appal us all. That the UK Government was providing military training to an autocratic regime in the first place is entirely inexcusable, let alone that it took them almost a month after the fraudulent election to announce the suspension of their defence engagement.

I welcomed the announcement by Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Minister Wendy Morton that the UK is to provide an extra £1.5 million over the next two years for projects in support of independent media, human rights organisations and community groups in Belarus.

However, this does not solve the immediate situation which, two days ago, saw prominent opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova abducted on the street and driven to the Ukrainian border. Appallingly, Kolesnikova had to resort to ripping up her passport to prevent her expulsion.

The UK Government can no longer remain passive and timid in the face of dictatorship. With this in mind, this morning in the House of Commons I called on the UK Government to take the following concrete actions.

First, it should impose targeted sanctions, under the Magnitsky regime, on senior Belarusian officials responsible for electoral fraud and violent repression.

In addition, the UK Government should release an explicit statement on what the co-operation involved and what the ramifications of it are.

The UK Government should offer humanitarian aid to activists in Belarus, looking to the example of Poland, who has already sent £10m.

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Finally, economic sanctions should also be imposed against companies and financial institutions associated with the Government of Belarus and therefore involved in facilitating repression.

I also requested a meeting between Wendy Morton MP, the Minister for European Neighbourhood and the Americas, and Belarussian activists here in the UK, which my office will facilitate.

Now is the time for action.