European airliners have started bypassing Belarus as the EU moved to isolate the country after it forced a Ryanair flight to land at Minsk airport so that a critic of autocratic president Alexander Lukashenko could be taken off the plane and arrested.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin spoke of “genuine anger and shock” among EU leaders over the incident, as they barred Belarusian airlines from the bloc and urged EU-based carriers not to fly through the country’s airspace, depriving Mr Lukashenko’s regime of substantial over-flight and landing fees.
"Leaders saw this as an attack on the European Union itself, on European Union citizens, hijacking essentially a plane in mid-air . . . forcing the crew to land in Minsk, and arresting Roman Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapega, so [we are] very clearly demanding their immediate release," Mr Martin said.
Mr Protasevich (26) gained prominence as a journalist and activist working for media outlet Nexta, which both covered and helped co-ordinate huge anti-Lukashenko protests last year, and reported on the brutal police response.
Several people were killed, hundreds injured and more than 30,000 detained during the crackdown, and Mr Protasevich and other opposition figures were accused of a host of serious crimes as Mr Lukashenko – with backing from chief ally Russia – portrayed critics of his regime as western-backed extremists.
The EU also froze a €3 billion investment package for Belarus and announced plans for more sanctions that would target “businesses and economic entities that are financing this regime”.
Measures under review
The Taoiseach said the measures would be kept “under constant review” by the EU and were intended to “to send a very clear message to the Belarusian authorities and to Lukashenko particularly, that this is unacceptable behaviour, and this has consequences.”
“The strongest leverage the European Union has is economic,” he added. “There’s only so much any union can take in respect of protecting its citizens and also protecting the fundamental values of life itself and of the democratic way of life.”
Flight-tracking websites showed clear air over Belarus on Tuesday as the EU's measures took effect, two days after Mr Lukashenko ordered a Mig-29 fighter jet to escort the Ryanair plane to Minsk airport due to an alleged bomb threat during its flight from Greece to Lithuania.
The supposed bomb threat was a hoax and Belarus' assertion that it came from people claiming to represent Hamas have been widely ridiculed, including by the Palestinian militant group itself.
Police waiting at Minsk airport arrested Mr Protasevich and Ms Sapega, and Belarusian state television broadcast a video of him at a detention centre on Monday night, in which he said he felt well, was being treated decently and was “co-operating” and had “confessed to organising mass protests in Minsk.”
Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the broadcast "was not reassuring, given the apparent bruising to his face, and the strong likelihood that his appearance was not voluntary and his 'confession' to serious crimes was forced."
Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said Mr Protasevich was "clearly beaten and under pressure. There is no doubt that he was tortured. He was taken hostage."
She called an emergency conference of Belarusian opposition figures on Tuesday from her current base in Lithuania, to discuss “further joint steps to react to the unprecedented situation created by Lukashenko, and to adapt the strategy for getting Belarus out of its deep crisis.”
Ms Tikhanovskaya also urged G7 leaders to invite the Belarusian opposition to their summit in Britain next month, saying that "the situation with the hijacking of the plane cannot be considered separately from other repressions and flagrant violations of human rights in Belarus."