(LONDON) — European countries on Monday moved to sanction Belarus and ban its state airline from flying to Europe as they sought to punish Alexander Lukashenko’s regime for forcing a Ryanair passenger flight to land in the country so it could arrest a leading dissident onboard.
The international outcry has continued to grow over Sunday’s incident, in which Belarus is accused of having used a false bomb threat to divert the airliner to its capital, Minsk, in order to arrest Roman Protasevich, a blogger who played a key role in last years’ mass protests against Lukashenko.
The United States and European countries have called it “air piracy” and “state-sponsored hijacking.”
At a summit in Brussels on Monday night, the 27 leaders of the European Union countries agreed quickly to drawing up fresh individual and targeted economic sanctions against Belarus. They also accepted calls to urge airlines to no longer fly over Belarus and for Belarus’ airlines to be banned from flying in Europe.
Ryanair flight forced to land in Belarus with top activist on board
In a communique, the EU leaders demanded that Belarus immediately release Protasevich as well as his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who was arrested with him.
The move to limit flights from Belarus reflected the anger among European countries and people’s belief that there must be consequences for Lukashenko, whose government has already face repeated volleys of sanctions.
Belarusian state television on Monday aired a video of Protasevich, seen for the first time since his arrest. In the video, Protasevich makes an apparent confession to the camera from a jail in the city.
Looking exhausted and seeming under duress, he said he was healthy and was confessing to charges of organizing mass disorder.
“My treatment from officers has been maximally correct and according to the law. Also, I am continuing to cooperate with the investigation and to give a guilt confession to the charge of organizing mass disorder in the city of Minsk,” he said.
The video first appeared after independent media in Belarus suggested Protasevich was hospitalized suffering from a heart problem. Protasevich in the video denied he was suffering from any health problems.
The plane carrying Protasevich and 120 other passengers was flying from Athens to Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, when it was suddenly diverted as it approached the Lithuanian border. Ryanair said Belarusian air traffic controllers had informed the flight of an alleged security threat and instructed it to land in Minsk. A Belarusian Mig-29 fighter jet was also dispatched to escort the flight.
On the ground, Belarusian agents took Protasevich away and detained Sepega. The rest of the passengers were then searched and held for hours as Belarusian officials continued the charade of handling a bomb threat.
The plane was eventually allowed to depart, leaving behind Protasevich and Sepega, and also three others, who European officials have said they suspect were Belarusian security agents.
Ryanair’s CEO, Michael O’Leary, on Monday condemned Belarus’ actions, telling the Irish radio station NewsTalk “this was a case of state-sponsored hijacking.”
Belarusian authorities meanwhile have continued to claim they were responding to a real bomb threat and acting to protect the passengers.
A senior official from Belarus’ transport ministry on Monday sought to make the implausible claim the hoax bomb threat had been sent by the Palestinian militant group, Hamas.
At a press conference Artyom Sikorsky, director of the ministry’s aviation department, read aloud in Russian a message he claimed had been sent by Hamas to Minsk airport.
“We, the Soldiers of Hamas, demand Israel cease fire in the Gaza Strip,” the message read by Sikorsky began, going on to demand the EU stop supporting Israel. He did not explain why Hamas would have sent the message only to Minsk airport or why it would demand a ceasefire days after one had already begun.
The Belarusian claim forced a denial from Hamas, with a spokesman saying it wasn’t true and that the group doesn’t use such tactics.
European leaders have dismissed the Belarusian explanations, in fact, before Monday’s summit, Germany’s leader, Angela Merkel, called them “totally implausible.”
Protasevich was a founder of the Telegram-based news channel NEXTA, which played a crucial role during the mass protests last year against Lukashenko. The channel and another NEXTA Live have over 2 million subscribers and during the protests helped coordinate demonstrations and published videos of them and of police violence that helped catalyze the peaceful uprising against Lukashenko.
Protasevich has left NEXTA and now runs his own popular blog.
Belarusian authorities last year placed Protasevich on a terrorism watchlist and opened criminal cases against him on the mass disorder charges and also of inciting hatred, offenses that carry 15 and 12 year prison sentences.
Protsevich’s father Dmitry on Monday told Radio Free Europe he feared his son might be tortured in Belarus. His girlfriend Sapega is also still detained and her mother said she was now in Minsk’s Okrestina jail, a notorious prison. Sapega, 23, is a Russian citizen, studying at a university in Vilnius.
Protasevich’s mother, Natalya, in a phone interview with NEXTA said she was proud of him.
“I want to say just that my son — he’s a hero. I really hope that the international community will stand up. It’s very hard for me,” she said, her voice cracking.
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