No doubt Protasevich was tortured, says Belarus opposition leader

‘Hijacking’ of Ryanair jet seen as attack on European Union, Taoiseach says

Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has said there was "no doubt" dissident journalist Roman Protasevich had been tortured, as she called for tougher sanctions against Belarus. Video: Reuters

 

Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said on Tuesday there was no doubt dissident journalist Roman Protasevich had been tortured, as she called for tougher sanctions against Belarus.

In a video posted online on Monday, Mr Protasevich said he is in good health and confessed to instigating unrest. However, the prominent opposition reporter appeared visibly bruised and the comments were immediately dismissed by his allies as having been made under duress.

Mr Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were arrested in Belarus on Sunday after a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in Minsk, after reports of a bomb threat – an explanation dismissed as “completely implausible” by German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Overnight, European Union leaders agreed to slap fresh sanctions on the autocratic regime of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko and cordon off the country’s airspace in response to the act.

Speaking in Brussels as the EU leaders met to co-ordinate its response, Taoiseach Micheál Martin recalled “genuine anger and shock” among the group.

“Leaders saw this as an attack on the European Union itself, on European Union citizens,” he said, describing the incident as a “hijacking essentially [of] a plane in midair, from one European city to another, forcing the crew to land in Minsk, and arresting Roman Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapega”.

He said the EU is “very clearly demanding their immediate release”.

The EU called on the International Civil Aviation Organisation to investigate the “unprecedented and unacceptable incident”, and instructed EU officials to draw up a new list of individuals and entities in Belarus to be targeted for fresh sanctions.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen predicted that the ultimate sanctions would fall on individuals involved in the incident, on businesses that finance the Lukashenko regime, and on the aviation sector.

‘Hit hard’

Minister of State for European Affairs Thomas Byrne has said that the EU sanctions to be taken against Belarus will “hit hard” and convey the outrage felt at the act.

Mr Byrne told Newstalk Breakfast that the EU was united in its opposition to the actions which were “simply not acceptable”, adding that it was too dangerous for the EU not to take action, as if they did not respond others could try a similar action.

He said Ireland wanted to give as much support as possible to the people of Belarus and officials were in close contact with Ms Tsikhanouskaya, who, he pointed out, has strong links with Ireland and planned to visit next month. It was important to maintain that contact, he said.

Mr Byrne also questioned the veracity of the video posted of Mr Protasevich allegedly admitting his role in unrest, saying: “He’s effectively a hostage. I don’t place any credence in that.” The Minister of State said he feared that the journalist was in for a very difficult time.

The act by the regime of Lukashenko – a pariah in the West since the alleged rigging of an election in 2020 to preserve his 26-year reign and a subsequent brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests – drew condemnation around the world.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson said the video of the detained journalist “makes for deeply distressing viewing” and called for Mr Protasevich’s immediate release. He said the actions of Belarus “will have consequences”.

President of the United States Joe Biden said he had ordered his team to “develop appropriate options” to hold those responsible to account.

The “removal and arrest of Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian journalist travelling abroad, are a direct affront to international norms,” Mr Biden said in a statement on Monday night, adding that the US condemned the act “in the strongest possible terms”.

He said the White House would work “in close co-ordination with the European Union, other allies and partners, and international organisations” to hold Belarus accountable.

Meanwhile, exiled critics of Mr Lukashenko have realised their adopted European homes aren’t necessarily safe, according to Ms Tsikhanouskaya.

Nine months after fleeing Belarus, the opposition leader saw how Mr Lukashenko brazenly defied international law to arrest Mr Protasevich, who, like her, had sought refuge in Lithuania.

“Exactly one week ago I took the same flight from Athens,” she told reporters. “I could be in Roman’s place right now. From now on, no person who flies over Belarusian airspace is guaranteed basic safety.” – Additional reporting Reuters, Bloomberg