European Union leaders on Monday agreed on a set of sanctions against Belarus, including a ban on the use of the 27-nation bloc's airspace and airports, amid fury over the forced diversion of a passenger jet flying between two EU countries in order to arrest an opposition journalist.
In what EU leaders have called a brazen "hijacking" of Irish carrier Ryanair's plane flying from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday, they demanded the immediate release of Raman Pratasevich, a key foe of authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the crew on Sunday that there was a bomb threat against the plane as it was crossing through the country's airspace and ordered it to land in the capital of Minsk.
A Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane — in a brazen show of force by Lukashenko, who has ruled with an iron fist for more than a quarter-century.
Pratasevich, a 26-year-old activist and journalist who ran a popular messaging app that played a key role in helping organize massive protests against the authoritarian leader, was arrested upon landing.
He and his Russian girlfriend were led off the plane. The plane, which began its journey in Athens, was eventually allowed to continue on to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.
Pratasevich appears on video
On Monday night, Belarusian state television showed a brief video of Pratasevich, in which he said he was giving evidence about organizing mass disturbances to investigators. Seated at a table with his hands folded in front of him and speaking rapidly, Pratasevich said he was in satisfactory health and that his treatment in custody was "maximally correct and according to law."
Hanna Liubakova, a freelance journalist and non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, says the prison system in Belarus is known for notorious treatment of prisoners akin to torture. She said marks on Pratasevish's forehead suggest he may have been beaten.
"Another issue is that he is saying he is confessing basically of plotting riots in Belarus, so we do not really know about his health conditions," she told guest host David Common. She said prisoners have reported being beaten, tortured and raped, and that guards pour bleach in the cells so that the prisoners cannot breathe.
"The regime is not only putting people in prison [depriving] them of their freedom, but also their basic rights."
U.S. President Joe Biden said late Monday that he asked his team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible, in close co-ordination with the European Union, other allies and partners, and international organizations.
The bloc summoned the ambassador to Belarus "to condemn the inadmissible step of the Belarusian authorities" and said in a statement the arrest was yet again "another blatant attempt to silence all opposition voices in the country."
Pratasevich left Belarus in 2019 and had been living in Poland as recently as November. He had reportedly moved recently to Vilnius.
The EU leaders called on their council "to adopt the necessary measures to ban overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines and prevent access to EU airports of flights operated by such airlines." In addition to calling for the release of Pratasevich, they also urged authorities in Minsk to free his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who was taken off the plane with him.
The text was endorsed quickly by the leaders, who were determined to respond with a "strong reaction" to the incident because of the "serious endangering of aviation safety and passengers on board by Belarussian authorities," said an EU official with direct knowledge of the discussions who was not authorized to speak publicly about the private talks.
Latvia's airBaltic said it would avoid Belarusian airspace, and Lithuania's government said it would instruct all flights to and from the Baltic country to avoid Belarus starting Tuesday.
No Canadian airlines currently fly in the region, according to the transport minister's office, but a spokesperson said in an email to CBC News that Canada is "reviewing if there were potential contraventions of the fundamental principles and rules that govern international civil aviation
Prior to the announcement of the new sanctions, British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he instructed the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority "to request airlines avoid Belarusian airspace in order to keep passengers safe." He added he was suspending the permit allowing Belavia Belarusian Airlines to operate in the U.K.
Belarus signs new anti-media law
The Lukashenko government signed a law on Monday sharply restricting news media activities and allowing them to be shut down without a court hearing.
Under the new law, news media are banned from making live reports on unauthorized mass gatherings. It also allows the Information Ministry to order a media outlet's closure; previously media closures required a court decision.
Other restrictions include prohibiting publication of the results of opinion polls that aren't authorized by the government.
"This is the most repressive media law in Europe, which turns the work of journalists in Belarus into a minefield," said Andrei Bastunets, president of the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
EU leaders have tried to bring Belarus closer to the bloc — to encourage democratic reforms and reduce the influence of Russia — but so far they have failed.
The United States and the EU have already imposed sanctions on top Belarusian officials amid months of protests, which were triggered by Lukashenko's re-election to a sixth presidential term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition rejected as rigged. More than 34,000 people have been arrested in Belarus since then, and thousands were brutally beaten.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry on Monday bristled at what it described as "belligerent" EU statements, insisting that the country's authorities acted "in full conformity with international rules."
It ordered all Latvian diplomats out of the country after the Belarusian flag was replaced on Monday with the white-red-and-white one used by the opposition at the world ice hockey championship in Riga, Latvia. Minsk was to host the event, but it was relocated to Latvia amid the international outcry over the crackdown on protests.
Conflicting reports over diversion
On Sunday, flight tracker sites indicated the Ryanair plane was about 10 kilometres from the Lithuanian border when it was diverted. There have been conflicting reports of what exactly happened.
The press service of Lukashenko said the president himself ordered that a fighter jet accompany the plane after he was informed of the bomb threat. Deputy air force commander Andrei Gurtsevich said the plane's crew made the decision to land in Minsk, adding that the fighter jet was sent to "provide help to the civilian aircraft to ensure a safe landing."
But Ryanair said in a statement that Belarusian air traffic control instructed the plane to divert to the capital. The plane was searched and no bomb was found.
Journalist faces 15 years in prison
Passengers described Pratasevich's shock when he realized that the plane was going to land in Minsk.
"I saw this Belarusian guy with girlfriend sitting right behind us. He freaked out when the pilot said the plane is diverted to Minsk. He said there's death penalty awaiting him there," passenger Marius Rutkauskas said after the plane finally arrived in Vilnius.
"We sat for an hour after the landing. Then they started releasing passengers and took those two. We did not see them again," Rutkauskas said.
Pratasevich was a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app's Nexta channel, which played a prominent role in helping organize major protests against Lukashenko.
Nearly two million Belarusians in the nation of 9.3 million people have followed the channel, which has served as the main conduit for organizing demonstrations and offered advice on how to dodge police cordons. It has also run photos, video and other materials documenting the brutal police crackdown on the protests.
The Belarusian authorities have labelled the channel "extremist" and levelled charges of inciting mass riots and fanning social hatred against Pratasevich, who could face 15 years in prison if convicted.
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