The European Union agreed Monday to impose sanctions on Belarus, including a ban on its airlines using EU airspace and airports, in response to outrage over the forced divergence of a passenger plane to arrest an opposition journalist. In response to what EU leaders described as a brazen “hijacking” of a Ryanair jetliner flying from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday, they demanded the immediate release of journalist Raman Pratasevich, a key foe of authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
A brief video clip of Pratasevich, who ran a popular messaging app that helped organize massive anti-Lukashenko protests, was shown on Belarusian state television Monday night, a day after he was removed from the Ryanair flight. Pratasevich, sitting at a table with his hands folded in front of him and speaking quickly, stated that he was in good health and that his treatment in custody was “maximally correct and according to law.” He also stated that he was providing evidence to investigators regarding the organization of mass disturbances.
In an unusually quick response in Brussels, EU leaders also urged all EU-based carriers to avoid flying over Belarus, decided to sanction officials involved in Sunday’s flight diversion, and urged the International Civil Aviation Organization to launch an investigation into what they saw as an unprecedented move, which some claimed amounted to state terrorism or piracy.
The leaders urged their council to “adopt the necessary measures to prohibit Belarusian airlines from flying over EU airspace and to prevent flights operated by such airlines from landing at EU airports.” In addition to calling for Pratasevich’s release, they urged Minsk authorities to release his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who was taken off the plane with him.
The text was quickly endorsed by the leaders, who were determined to respond to the incident with a “strong reaction” due to the “serious endangering of aviation safety and passengers on board by Belarussian authorities,” according to an EU official with direct knowledge of the discussions who was not authorized to speak publicly about the private talks.
One European airline has already diverted a flight around Belarus. According to the website Flightradar24, British Airways flight 3599, which flew over Belarus on Saturday and Sunday, avoided the country on Monday by using Russian airspace instead.
According to Ryanair, Belarusian flight controllers informed the crew of a bomb threat against the plane as it flew through Belarusian airspace on Sunday and ordered the plane to land. In a brazen show of force by Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for more than a quarter-century, a Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane.
Late Monday, US President Joe Biden directed his team to develop appropriate options for holding those responsible accountable, in close collaboration with the European Union, other allies and partners, and international organizations. Earlier, White House press secretary Jen Psaki stated that National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan raised the issue with the secretary of the Russian Security Council during a phone call.
Because of the incident, two US senators urged the Biden administration to prohibit US airlines from entering Belarusian airspace. “We must protect innocent passengers from despotic regimes and stand in solidarity with dissidents who are being targeted,” said Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in a joint statement.
EU leaders were particularly outspoken in their condemnation of the arrest and the action against the plane, which was flying between two EU member countries and was operated by an airline based in Ireland, another EU member.
The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on top Belarusian officials following months of protests sparked by Lukashenko’s reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition called rigged. Since then, more than 34,000 people have been arrested and thousands have been beaten in Belarus.
It expelled all Latvian diplomats after the Belarusian flag was replaced Monday with the opposition’s white-and-red flag at the world ice hockey championship in Riga, Latvia. Because of the international outcry over the crackdown, the event was relocated from Minsk.