A day after Belarus forcibly diverted a Lithuania-bound flight to arrest journalist Roman Protasevich, the chorus for action against Alexander Lukashenko’s regime has been growing louder. The European Council is now mulling a variety of sanctions against not only the individuals involved in the hijacking, but also businesses and economic entities financing the regime.
Ryanair Flight FR4978 was on its way from Athens to Vilnius on May 23, before being forcibly diverted and made to land in Minsk where journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofie Sapega were deboarded and arrested by Belarusian authorities. Protasevich is said to be close to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the Belarusian Opposition leader who was forced into exile after President Alexander Lukashenko retained power in what many see as a fake election in August 2020. She tweeted a picture of the duo and demanded their immediate release.
Tsikhanouskaya also suugested that Belarus’s membership to international organizations like Interpol and the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization should be suspended. “It is important to ban flights over Belarus, sanction the regime to isolate it politically and financially. This would be an appropriate and proportionate response to yesterday’s hijack,” she said.
Interestingly, Belarusian authorities then released a video of the arrested journalist where he says that he is being treated well.
But to many, especially, Tsikahnouskaya, the video of Protatsevich appears to have been shot under duress. Tsikhaouskaya tweeted the video saying, “The regime’s propaganda channels posted a video of arrested Raman Pratasevich, saying that he is treated lawfully in the Minsk Detention Center №1. This is how Raman looks under physical and moral pressure. I demand the immediate release of Raman and all political prisoners.”
After a special meeting to discuss the hijacking of the plane that had over 170 people onboard at the time of the hijacking, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, “This is an attack on democracy. This is an attack on freedom of expression and this is an attack on European sovereignty.” She added, “This outrageous behavior needs a strong answer. Therefore, the European Council decided that there will be additional sanctions on individuals that are involved in the hijacking, but this time also on businesses and economic entities that are financing this regime.”
Demanding immediate release of the journalist and his partner, she said, “Roman Protasevich must be released immediately. Belarus authorities are entirely responsible for his health and the health of his companion Sofia Sapega.”
She called the hijacking of the plane “a deliberate and unnecessary triggering of a safety emergency” and referred to Belarus’s use of fighter jets to guide the hijacked plane to land as an “unjustified intervention of a military aircraft”. EC President von der Leyen minced no words when she said, “Belarus used its control over its airspace in order to perpetrate a state hijacking. Therefore, the safety and security of flights through Belarus airspace can no longer be trusted.”
She said that the EC will “adapt measures to ban over flies of the EU airspace and deny access to EU airports to Belarus airplanes.”
For its part Ryanair issued a statement condemning Belarus’s actions and promising to cooperate with EU and NATO investigations:
Meanwhile, the international community has also been showing support for the arrested journalist and his partner and condemned the state sponsored hijacking of the plane.
US President Joe Biden issued called the hijacking as well as the arrests “direct affront to international norms.” Biden issued a statement saying, “The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms both the diversion of the plane and the subsequent removal and arrest of Mr. Pratasevich.” He further called out the video of Protasevich saying, “This outrageous incident and the video Mr. Pratasevich appears to have made under duress are shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press.”
Just yesterday US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had tweeted saying, “We strongly condemn the Lukashenka regime’s brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist. We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps. The United States stands with the people of Belarus.”
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said, “The scenario as reported, is a shocking assault on civilization and an assault on international law. It represents a danger to civilian flights everywhere and it is an egregious and extraordinary departure from the international law and international practice that guides international civil aviation.” UK has issued notice to all British airlines to “cease overflights of Belarusian airspace” and also suspended operation permit to Belavia, the Belarusian national airline.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas tweeted saying, “We demand immediate release of activist Roman Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapega.”
Chairs of national Parliament Foreign Affairs Committees of eight nations: Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, Ireland, Poland, UK and US also called for an immediate inquiry by the ICAO and issued the following joint statement:
*Feature image courtesy Twitter account of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.