By Peter Spinella and Leonie Kijewski
Brussels/Moscow - The EU is preparing a list of sanctions against Belarusian individuals after a bloody post-election crackdown on protesters by police, diplomats told dpa.
The individuals to be sanctioned include those responsible for police violence and election fraud, the EU sources said.
The decision was made during a virtual meeting among the 27 EU foreign affairs ministers on Friday evening.
Thousands of protesters who decried last weekend's election as rigged have recently been arrested, sparking international outrage.
While many of them have since been released, numerous protesters spoke of mistreatment during their arrest and imprisonment.
On Friday, Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called for protesters to keep up the pressure.
Tikhanovskaya, who left Belarus after unsuccessfully challenging long-time President Alexander Lukashenko in Sunday's election, called for the mayors of cities throughout the country to allow protesters to rally peacefully this upcoming weekend.
Calling for peaceful protests on both Saturday and Sunday, Tikhanovskaya, who placed second in the election according to the widely disputed official tally, said that Belarusians must stand up for their democratic rights.
"We have always said it is necessary to defend our choice only through legal, non-violent methods. The authorities have turned the peaceful rallying of citizens on the streets into bloody mayhem," Tikhanovskaya said in a video posted on social media.
EU member state Lithuania, which borders Belarus, has said Tikhanovskaya came to safety in that country earlier this week.
The European Union has in previous years already sanctioned some officials and imposed an arms embargo.
Protests throughout Belarus erupted following Sunday's election, with electoral authorities saying Lukashenko had received about 80 per cent of the vote, a claim that many have disputed as a fabrication.
The EU has described the election as "neither free nor fair" and condemned the police crackdown on protesters as "disproportionate and unacceptable", according to a statement by the European Council.
There have been protests in major cities every day since the election. Hundreds of doctors and groups of women formed human chains in the capital Minsk on Friday to protest Lukashenko's re-election.
The pressure on Lukashenko has been further increased by workers striking in numerous state-owned companies throughout the country.
Lukashenko, 65, has led the former Soviet republic for a quarter of a century, tolerating little dissent.
The Czech Republic, Poland and Lithuania, former Eastern Bloc states, have led the calls for EU action on Belarus.
"We cannot wait. The Belarusian people need our immediate help," Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said in a statement on Twitter.
About 2,000 of the 7,000 people detained during protests have been released, according to Interior Ministry statistics published by state media.
Many of those released said they were severely mistreated.
They recounted the lack of food and space in prison cells and showed wounds and bruises, according to local media and videos and photos circulating early on Friday.
Several people had to be taken to hospital immediately after being released, local media reported.
Journalism organizations say authorities in Belarus have detained about 70 reporters.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the "brutal violence" used against protesters, via her spokesman in Berlin.
As of Thursday, 23 remained in custody, according to Reporters Without Borders, which cited the Belarusian Journalism Association. According to the statement, people working as reporters were detained randomly, beaten and sometimes locked away for long periods.
"The chancellor in particular condemns the fact that thousands have been imprisoned merely for taking part in peaceful protests. She is appalled by reports that prisoners have been abused," spokesman Steffen Seibert said.
"Statements from tortured people unfortunately prove many such cases," he added, calling on the detainees to be released immediately and unconditionally.
Interior Minister Yury Karayev apologized to citizens on state television for the arrest of many innocent people.
Lukashenko called on workers to refrain from striking and emphasized that he remained in the country to lead it, according to comments published by state media on Friday.
"If people want to work, please, here's work, come and work. If a person does not want to work, we will not drag him in with a lasso," Lukashenko said.
Belarus, whose closest ally is neighbouring Russia, is one of the poorest countries in Europe and maintains an economic structure similar to its Soviet predecessor state. Belarus' economy is dominated by massive state-owned companies.
A protester whose father was temporarily detained during a demonstration this week told dpa that workers' strikes had more potential than street protests to evoke political change.
"A significant change will be if factories go on strike. Otherwise I am afraid there will be no success," the protester said on condition on anonymity.
EU state Lithuania has announced that it would ease entry restrictions for Belarusians seeking asylum.
Berlin-based anti-corruption organization Transparency International said it was "horrified by the violent attacks, arbitrary arrests and brutal repression unleashed by the government of Alexander Lukashenko against peaceful protesters."
"We stand in solidarity with the people of Belarus who have shown incredible courage through their peaceful resistance to the country's authoritarian regime since Sunday's unfair election," the organization said in a statement.