The Irish Times view on the Belarus jet interception: Lukashenko must be held to account

Minsk has also thrown down a challenge to European states – one that demands a robust response

A decision by authorities in Belarus to force a Ryanair jet to land in Minsk and detain a dissident journalist was a "state-sponsored hijacking", Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O'Leary has said. Video: Reuters

 

Confidence that states will not impede or intercept overflights is a central, essential pillar of the international civil aviation system and international travel. By intercepting Ryanair Flight 4978 to Lithuania and forcing it to land in Minsk to arrest the dissident Roman Protasevich, extending its brutal campaign against internal opposition, Belarus has also seriously violated international law, specifically the International Air Services Transit Agreement under the Chicago Convention. It has also thrown down a challenge to European states – one that demands a robust response.

Lukashenko, known as 'Europe’s last dictator', has clung to power despite huge protests against his government last year

The Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, carrying 170 passengers, was flying over Belarus when Belarussian air traffic controllers notified its pilots of “a potential security threat on board”, later suggested to have been a hoax. They directed the plane to divert to Minsk. It was escorted in by a Belarussian fighter dispatched on the specific instructions of the country’s President Alexander Lukashenko. Some airlines in Eastern Europe yesterday began diverting their planes to avoid Belarus airspace.

Protasevich is a 26-year-old journalist, co-founder of the online Nexta Telegram channel, one of the most popular opposition outlets in Belarus and one that played an important role in organising protests. Like many other dissidents, he had been been living in exile and was arrested off the plane along with his girlfriend.

Lukashenko, known as “Europe’s last dictator”, has clung to power despite huge protests against his government last year following his disputed re-election to a sixth term in August. Some 32,000 protesters have faced imprisonment and many more been beaten off the streets by police.

Undeterred by international criticism of the incident, Lukashenko’s government has been signalling its intention to intensify the crackdown. The country placed bans on publishing unauthorised opinion polls, on the livestreaming of unauthorised protests, and even on posting links to “banned” information.

The EU imposed financial and visa sanctions last year against leading Minsk officials including Lukashenko for “violent repression and intimidation of peaceful demonstrators, opposition members and journalists”.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney joined EU leaders in denouncing the latest incident, which he rightly described as “state-sponsored aviation piracy”. The EU special summit is considering what form of punitive sanctions it could respond with. It will also demand Protasevich’s immediate release and may impose an overflight ban and other air restrictions on Belarus. More broadly, however, the EU must fashion a policy that contains Lukashenko’s worst excesses while offering hope for a better future to the people of Belarus.

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