European Union leaders have agreed a set of sanctions against Belarus, including a ban on the use of EU air space and airports after the regime of autocrat Alexander Lukashenko forced the landing of a Ryanair flight to seize a dissident journalist who was aboard.
After what EU leaders called a brazen "hijacking" of a Ryanair plane flying from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday, they demanded the immediate release of Roman Protasevich, a key critic of authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. The EU leaders also decided to sanction individual officials linked to the operation, and called on the International Civil Aviation Organisation to start an investigation into what they see as an unprecedented move and what some have called state terrorism.
A string of national leaders including Taoiseach Micheál Martin called for the release of Protasevich (26) and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega (23) as they gathered in Brussels to discuss the incident described by Ryanair as “an act of aviation piracy”.
In a video posted online on Monday, Protasevich says he is in good health and acknowledges having played a role in organising mass disturbances in Minsk last year. The comments were immediately dismissed by his allies as made under duress. "This is how Raman looks under physical and moral pressure. I demand the immediate release of Raman and all political prisoners," a leader of Belarusian opposition, Sviatlana Thiskanouskaya, wrote on Twitter in English, using the Belarusian spelling of his name. Appearing on several channels of the Telegram messaging app, Protasevich, wearing a dark sweatshirt and with his hands tightly clasped in front of him, says he is in a pre-trial detention facility in Minsk and denies having heart problems reported by some social media. He also appears to have a small black spot on his forehead.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the EU would seek to slap sanctions on individuals involved in the incident, on businesses that finance the Lukashenko regime, and on the aviation sector.
A draft joint statement proposed by Greece calls on EU airlines to avoid flying through Belarusian airspace, to ban Belarusian airlines from using EU airports, for an investigation and for sanctions on the regime.
Lithuania, where the flight was destined before a baseless report of a bomb threat forced it to divert to Minsk accompanied by a Belarusian fighter jet, has already banned flights to and from the territory, while Britain’s transport secretary Grant Shapps ordered airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace and revoked the permit of national airline Belavia.
As the meeting began, European Council president Charles Michel requested that all electronic devices be removed from the room "to ensure the confidentiality of the discussion on Belarus and on Russia", a spokesman for Michel said.
On his way to the summit, Lithuanian president Gitanas Nauseda accused Belarus of “state terrorism” and said that its airspace was now “unsafe”.
A Russian citizen, Ms Sapega is a student at the European Humanities University in Vilnius and had been flying back to defend her Masters thesis, according to a statement issued by the university appealing for her release.
‘State-sponsored coercive act’
Earlier, Mr Martin said: “I think we do have to send a very firm message.”
The Taoiseach told journalists ahead of a meeting of EU national leaders that Mr Protasevich “should be released”.
"I think it reflects a growing authoritarianism, in the globe, near to Europe, and countries who espouse and democratic values and international rules of engagement, have to stand up to this type of behaviour," Mr Martin said.
Asked whether he would support suspending flights through Belarusian airspace, the Taoiseach said he needed to look at all the options and examine their consequences.
Mr Martin described the incident, as “a state-sponsored coercive act”.
“It’s piracy in the skies and it’s just not acceptable,” he said.
“There has to be measures that respond to an event of this kind,” he said.
A statement from authorities in Belarus said they acted “legally” and claims that KGB secret service members were on board the plane were “baseless”. But Mr Martin described the statement as “nonsense”. “I think we all know what happened here and don’t be hiding behind the rules, or don’t be hiding behind excuses,” he added. “You forced the plane down to arrest a journalist whose views you don’t agree with, and that is contrary to any sense of decency or democratic values.”
Mr Lukashenko is accused of rigging an election to cling to power in 2020 and a brutal crackdown on subsequent pro-democracy protests.
Minister for Foreign Affaris Simon Coveney said the regime in Belarus had no democratic legitimacy and it was “behaving as a dictatorship”.
Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary said the forced landing of one of the airline’s planes was “state-sponsored hijacking” and “state-sponsored piracy” on the part of Belarus.
He also said “we believe there was also some KGB agents offloaded from the aircraft as well”.
Military fighter scrambled
Mr Protasevich (26), a former editor of the influential Telegram channels Nexta and Nexta Live, was detained by police after the flight was diverted to Minsk national airport.
Minsk confirmed that Mr Lukashenko ordered his military to scramble a Mig-29 fighter to escort the plane until it landed.
Ms von der Leyen, said “the outrageous and illegal behaviour . . . will have consequences”.
Forcing the emergency landing of a European jetliner would be an extraordinary act even for Mr Lukashenko’s government, which has launched a broad crackdown on opposition leaders and independent media.
Opponents of the regime have been arrested, including some who have fled abroad to avoid reprisals, including a former spokesman for Mr Lukashenko who vanished last month during a trip to Moscow and then reappeared in custody in Minsk.
Mr Protasevich has been accused by Belarus of terrorism and provoking riots after the Nexta channels became one of the main conduits for organising last year’s anti-Lukashenko protests over election fraud.
Mr Protasevich had been living in exile and Poland had previously rejected an extradition request sent by Minsk.
According to online flight data, the plane was over Belarusian airspace when it diverted course but was closer to Vilnius than Minsk.
“I’m facing the death penalty here,” a trembling Mr Protasevich reportedly told a fellow passenger from the plane before he was led away by Belarusian police. The mass unrest charges against him carry a sentence of up to 15 years.
Mr Protasevich had been covering a visit to Athens by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former presidential candidate who has declared herself the country’s leader-in-exile due to widespread fraud during last year’s elections. She called on the International Civil Aviation Organisation to investigate Belarus. – Additional reporting: Guardian/PA/Reuters