Airlines Shun Belarusian Airspace As Calls For Sanctions Over Plane Diversion Grow
By RFE/RL May 25, 2021
The global aviation industry has moved to isolate Belarus as the leader of the country's opposition called for the international community to act in concert to stop authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka from acting with "impunity" following the diversion of a commercial airliner and arrest of an opposition journalist.
Belarus caused international outrage when it forced a Ryanair flight traveling between EU members Greece and Lithuania to land on May 23 in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, where Belarusian journalist and opposition activist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend were detained.
Some EU leaders called the incident "state hijacking."
A video released by Belarusian authorities showed the 26-year-old Pratasevich confessing to having organized anti-government demonstrations, which British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said made for "deeply distressing viewing" and opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya said left no doubt that Pratasevich made the "confession" under duress and had been tortured.
Pratasevich is facing charges of being behind civil disturbances, an offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison. (RFE/RL has decided not to publish or link to the video.)
Tsikhanouskaya, who lives in exile in Lithuania, said on social media on May 25 that it was time to discuss joint steps "to bring the perpetrators to justice" after months of a brutal crackdown by Lukashenka on his opponents and independent journalists amid claims he won a rigged election last year.
"[Pratasevich] said that he was treated lawfully, but he's clearly beaten and under pressure. There is no doubt that he was tortured. He was taken hostage," Tsikhanouskaya told a news conference in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.
Belarus has not commented on the torture allegation but has consistently denied abusing detainees, despite some rights groups claiming there is strong evidence to the contrary.
"All of this is a result of the regime's impunity and the lack of a decisive response from the international community," Tsikhanouskaya added.
The call from Tsikhanouskaya, who fled Belarus after the election due to concerns about her safety, came as U.S. President Joe Biden condemned Minsk for what he called an "outrageous incident" that would be met with a coordinated response with European allies.
EU leaders on May 24 agreed at a summit to impose fresh economic sanctions on Belarus and called on the bloc's airlines to avoid the Eastern European country's skies and moved to ban Belarusian airlines from EU airspace and airports. They also demanded the immediate release of the dissident journalist and his girlfriend.
"Belarus's forced diversion of a commercial Ryanair flight, traveling between two member states of the European Union, and subsequent removal and arrest of Raman Pratasevich, a Belarusian journalist traveling abroad, are a direct affront to international norms," Biden said in a statement.
"I welcome the news that the European Union has called for targeted economic sanctions and other measures, and have asked my team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible, in close coordination with the European Union, other allies and partners, and international organizations," Biden said.
"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. The United States joins countries around the world in calling for his release, as well as for the release of the hundreds of political prisoners who are being unjustly detained" in Belarus, Biden said.
Meanwhile, the United Nations on May 25 said the "abduction" of Pratasevich and his girlfriend amounted to an abuse of state power and demanded their immediate release.
"We are shocked by the unlawful arrest and arbitrary detention," UN rights office spokesman Rupert Colville told reporters in Geneva.
"The manner, through threat of military force, in which Pratasevich was abducted from the jurisdiction of another state and brought within that of Belarus was tantamount to an extraordinary rendition," Colville said. "Such abuse of state power against a journalist for exercising functions that are protected under international law is receiving, and deserves, the strongest condemnation."
In a video statement, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called for both an "urgent international investigation" into the incident and the release of Pratasevich and his companion.
"This is a state hijacking and demonstrates how the regime in Minsk attacks basic democratic rights and cracks down on freedom of expression and independent media," Stoltenberg said.
Russia's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement on May 25 that Pratasevich's girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, was being held on suspicion of "committing crimes" between August and September 2020, the period when the postelection protests began. Sapega is a Russian citizen.
Earlier on May 25, the Russian state news agency TASS quoted Sapega's father as saying that as of the previous evening, an attorney representing his daughter had not been able to meet with her.
Zakharova said a court hearing should be held within three days of Sapega's arrest to decide whether she should be released or held in pretrial detention.
"We expect to receive permission for a consular meeting with S.A. Sapega in the very near future," she added.
The EU, United States, and other Western countries have already imposed sanctions against the regime of Lukashenka, who has led a violent crackdown on dissent in the country since mass protests broke out over the disputed results of last August's presidential election.
The Belarusian opposition and the West say the elections were fraudulent and don't recognize the result. The opposition says Tsikhanouskaya was the true winner of the vote.
U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke with Tsikhanouskaya on May 24 to express U.S. support for the democratic opposition and reiterated calls for the release of hundreds of Belarusian political prisoners, the White House said in a separate statement.
The statement said the United States would hold the Lukashenka regime to account for the Ryanair incident and human rights abuses, as well as continue to demand free and fair elections to resolve the country's political crisis.
Belarusian state media have reported that Lukashenka personally ordered the flight to be intercepted, ostensibly because of a bomb scare that later proved to be a false alarm.
The UN's International Civil Aviation Organization has said the incident may have violated the foundational treaty governing international civil aviation, the 1944 Chicago Convention.
In response to the incident and orders from EU capitals, several airlines have announced a suspension of their flights over Belarusian airspace.
Air France, Finnair, Lufthansa, and Singapore Airlines were among the latest carriers to suspend flights over Belarus on May 25, a day after European Union leaders called on the bloc's aviation industry to avoid the Eastern European country's skies and moved to ban Belarusian airlines from EU airspace and airports.
Ukraine's government said the country's airlines were no longer allowed to transit through Belarusian airspace and that flights to and from Belarus would be banned from May 26.
EU leaders have directed officials to draw up unspecified new sanctions against Minsk and to work out a way to ban Belarusian airlines from the bloc's skies.
If all such measures are fully implemented, Belarus would be almost completely isolated from air travel, with flights reaching it only by passing over its eastern border with Lukashenka's close ally, Russia.
"If we let this go, tomorrow Alyaksandr Lukashenka will go further and do something even more arrogant, more cruel," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a statement.
Copyright (c) 2021. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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