by H. Haverstock, The Chicago Times

May 24, 2021

BRUSSELS — Following outrage over the forced landing of a passenger plane to arrest an opposition journalist, the European Union decided Monday to impose restrictions on Belarus, including a ban on its airlines using EU airspace and airports.

EU leaders ordered the immediate release of journalist Raman Pratasevich, a primary foe of repressive Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, after a Belarus diverted of a Ryanair jetliner flying from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday.

Pratasevich, who ran a prominent chat app and was instrumental in organizing huge anti-Lukashenko demonstrations, was briefly featured on Belarusian state television Monday night, a day after he was removed from the Ryanair flight.

Pratasevich said he was in good health and that his care in prison was “maximally correct and according to law,” as he stood at a table with his hands crossed in front of him and spoke quickly.  He went on to say that he was testifying to prosecutors about planning mass riots.

The EU leaders have ordered all EU-based airlines to stop flying over Belarus, agreed to impose penalties on officials related to Sunday’s flight diversion, and urged the International Civil Aviation Organization to launch an investigation into what they see as an extraordinary gesture that some have compared to state terrorism.

EU leaders urged their council to “adopt the necessary measures to prohibit Belarusian airlines from flying over EU airspace and preventing flights operated by such airlines from landing at EU airports.”

They also urged authorities in Minsk to free Pratasevich’s Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who was detained alongside him on the plane.

According to an EU official with direct knowledge of the discussions who was not allowed to speak publicly about the private talks, the text was immediately approved by the representatives, who were prepared to respond to the incident with a “strong reaction” because of the “serious endangering of aviation safety and passengers on board by Belarussian authorities.”

When flying through Belarusian airspace on Sunday, Ryanair officials said Belarusian flight controllers informed the crew of a bomb threat and directed the plane to land.  Lukashenko, who has dominated Belarus with an iron hand for more than a quarter-century, sent a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the aircraft in a blatant display of aggression.

The 26-year-old blogger, journalist, and vocal critic of Lukashenko was then detained by Belarusian authorities.  Pratasevich and his Russian partner were detained immediately after the plane arrived, and police have not revealed where they are being held.

Ryanair Flight FR4978, which took off from Athens, Greece, was finally allowed to fly to Vilnius, Lithuania.

According to White House press secretary Jen Psaki, President Biden was briefed on the attack, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan discussed the topic in his call with the Russian Security Council secretary.  She went on to say that the government was outraged by the “shocking act” of diverting a flight to arrest a journalist.

“It is a flagrant violation of international peace and security by the regime.  We seek an urgent international, open, and reliable inquiry into this incident,” she said, adding that the US was in contact with NATO, the EU, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to discuss next steps.

The EU summoned Belarus’ ambassador “to condemn the inadmissible step of the Belarusian authorities,” and said the detention was “yet another blatant attempt to silence all opposition voices in the country” in a statement.

EU leaders threatened further penalties ahead of their meeting, ranging from the suspension of Belarus’ national carrier Belavia’s landing rights in the bloc to withdrawal from sporting events.

Even before the EU took action, Latvia’s airBaltic said it would avoid Belarusian airspace, and Lithuania’s government said all flights to and from the Baltic country would be directed to avoid Belarus beginning Tuesday.

“In order to keep passengers safe,” British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he ordered the UK Civil Aviation Authority to “request airlines avoid Belarusian airspace.”  He also said he was terminating Belavia’s operating permit in the United Kingdom.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine has directed officials to take steps to sever the air link with Belarus and prohibit Ukrainian flights from using the neighboring country’s airspace.

Following months of demonstrations sparked by Lukashenko’s reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 referendum that the opposition called rigged, the US and the EU put sanctions on top Belarusian officials.  Since then, more than 34,000 people have been detained in Belarus, with thousands more beaten.

Belarus’ Foreign Ministry reacted angrily to what it called the EU’s “belligerent” remarks, maintaining that Minsk behaved “in full compliance with international rules.”

The Ryanair flight was about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the Lithuanian border when it was diverted, according to flight tracking sites on Sunday.  The Minsk airport had received an email about the bomb attack from the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas, according to Belarusian transport ministry official Artem Sikorsky.

After learning of the bomb attack, Lukashenko’s press service said he had requested a fighter jet to follow the aircraft.  The Ryanair crew chose to land in Minsk, according to Deputy Air Force Commander Andrei Gurtsevich, who added that the fighter jet was sent “to ensure a safe landing.”

In a tweet, Ryanair said Belarusian air traffic control ordered the plane to divert to the capital.

There was no bomb on the plane when it was inspected.

The move was characterized by Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary as “state-sponsored hijacking… state-sponsored piracy.”

According to Rolandas Kiskis, head of the criminal police bureau in Vilnius, where an investigation has started, only 121 of the 126 passengers on board the flight made it to Vilnius.

Pratasevich was a co-founder of the Nexta channel on the Telegram messaging platform, which was instrumental in organizing anti-Lukashenko demonstrations.  In a country of 9.3 million citizens, almost 2 million Belarusians have subscribed to the channel, which has served as the primary conduit for organizing protests and providing tips about how to avoid police cordons.  It has also published photographs, videos, and other documents detailing the violent police response to the demonstrations.

The channel has been labelled “extremist” by Belarusian officials, who have charged Pratasevich in his absence with inciting mass protests and spreading social hate.  If sentenced, he could face a sentence of 15 years in jail.

Pratasevich was included on a list of people accused of being involved in terrorism by the Belarusian KGB in November, an ominous indication that he could face even more serious charges.  In Belarus, the only country in Europe that still uses the death penalty, terrorism is punishable by death.

Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said the incident should be reviewed, but that it could not be done quickly.  Moscow and Minsk have strong diplomatic, economic, and military relations, and Lukashenko has counted on Russian assistance in the face of Western sanctions.