The European Union has banned Belarusian airlines from its airports and airspace amid international outcry over the country's treatment of Roman Protasevich, a journalist and activist whose Ryanair flight was forcibly diverted to Minsk so he could be arrested.
Western governments, rights groups and Mr Protasevich's parents denounced Belarus for showing an "interview" on state television in which he renounced his opposition to Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko and even praised the autocratic leader – prompting critics to compare it to a hostage video.
Mr Protasevich was arrested on May 23rd after Belarus said his Ryanair flight en route from Greece to Lithuania faced a bomb threat and should land at Minsk airport. Along with his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, who was also on board, he is accused of serious crimes linked to huge protests last year against Mr Lukashenko.
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Thursday night's broadcast in Belarus – during which Mr Protasevich (26), who had deep cut on his wrists, broke down in tears – was "absolutely disgraceful and implausible" and was "condemned in the strongest terms" by Berlin.
“That is a disgrace for the broadcaster . . . and for the Belarusian leadership which is once again showing its contempt for democracy and, it must be said, for humanity,” he added.
‘They broke him’
British foreign secretary Dominic Raab said Mr Protasevich – who worked for the Nexta social media channel that covered and then co-ordinated opposition protests in Belarus – had spoken "clearly under duress".
“The persecution of those defending human rights and media freedom in Belarus must stop. Those involved in the filming, coercion and direction of the interview must be held accountable,” he wrote on Twitter.
The activist’s father, Dmitry, said his son would only have criticised the Belarusian opposition movement and hailed the Russian-backed Mr Lukashenko – the country’s ruler since 1994 – as a result of “abuse, torture and threats”.
"I know my son very well and I believe that he would never say such things," Dmitry Protasevich told the AFP news agency. "They broke him and forced him to say what was needed . . . I am very worried."
The EU announced that from Friday night member states would “be required to deny permission to land in, take off from or overfly their territories to any aircraft operated by Belarusian air carriers”.
The move formalises recommendations made by EU leaders after the Ryanair incident, and comes as the bloc draws up economic sanctions – in liaison with the United States – against individuals and firms with close ties to the Belarusian authorities.
The EU is also offering Belarus €3 billion in assistance if it moves peacefully to democracy, while Russia is lending Mr Lukashenko's regime $1.5 billion (€1.2 billion).
The International Air Transport Association criticised the EU's sanctions on the Belarusian air travel sector, while emphasising that it "condemned the actions of the Belarus government".
"Two wrongs do not make a right," said IATA director general Willie Walsh. "Politics should never interfere with the safe operation of aircraft and politicians should never use aviation safety as a cover to pursue political or diplomatic agendas."