Monday, Sep 26, 2022

Belarus isolation deepens as flights avoid its airspace

Belarus isolation is deepening as commercial planes avoid its airspace the European Union works up new sanctions and a senior UN official says he is concerned for the welfare of an opposition journalist arrested in Minsk after his plane was diverted there.

Roman Protasevich, a journalist critical of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were detained after the plane carrying them was forced to land in Belarus. (AP, File)

Belarus isolation deepened Tuesday as commercial planes avoided its airspace the European Union worked up new sanctions and a senior UN official said he was concerned for the welfare of an opposition journalist arrested in Minsk after his plane was diverted there apparently on the orders of the country’s longtime strongman.

After his detention, Roman Protasevich was seen in a brief video clip shown on Belarusian state television late Monday speaking rapidly to say that he was confessing to some of the charges authorities have leveled against him.

The spokesperson for the UNs human rights office Rupert Colville said Protasevichs appearance was likely not voluntary and that he seemed to have bruising to his face though it was difficult to tell from the footage.

The 26yearold journalist and activist was arrested Sunday after Belarusian flight controllers told the crew of a Ryanair jetliner he was aboard that there was a bomb threat against the flight and ordered it to land. A Belarusian MiG29 fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane in a brazen move by President Alexander Lukashenko who has ruled the country with an iron fist for over a quarter-century.

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The diversion and arrest elicited widespread shock and fury and EU leaders took unusually swift action in response at a summit Monday. They agreed to ban Belarusian airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27nation bloc imposed sanctions on officials linked to Sundays flight diversion and urged the International Civil Aviation Organization to start an investigation into the episode some described as state terrorism or piracy.

They demanded Protasevichs release and urged European carriers to avoid Belarus airspace Polish carrier LOT and Baltic airlines have begun bypassing Belarus Air France KLM Finnair Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines have all said they will also avoid flights over the country The UK which is no longer part of the EU also recommended that carriers don’t fly over Belarus and British Airways flights were avoiding the country.

Belarus has defended its actions and its Transport Ministry said Tuesday that it has invited representatives of the international aviation organization and US and EU authorities to investigate the flights diversion.


In a sign that tensions remained high NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg described the Ryanair flights diversion as dangerous and unacceptable and welcomed the EU response. 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.

The 30nation military organization’s ambassadors are meeting later Tuesday and will discuss the episode.

Protasevich who was arrested along with his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega was later seen in a brief video clip shown on Belarusian state television saying he was giving evidence to investigators about his organization of mass disturbances.


Colville the UNs human rights office spokesperson denounced the planes diversion as abuse of state power that deserves the strongest condemnation. He said that Protasevichs brief appearance on Belarus state television Monday night was not reassuring given the apparent bruising to his face and the strong likelihood that his appearance was not voluntary and his confession to serious crimes was forced.

This astonishing episode constitutes a new phase in the Belarusian authorities campaign of repression against journalists and civil society in general Colville said.

Protasevich who left Belarus in 2019 and ran a popular messaging app that played a key role in helping organize huge protests against Lukashenko has been charged in absentia with staging mass riots and fanning social hatred Those charges carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

The Telegram messaging apps Nexta channel that he cofounded has been labeled extremist by the Belarusian authorities and some fear Pratasevich could face more serious charges including some that carry the death penalty.

Speaking to The Associated Press in Warsaw Stsiapan Putsila another Nexta cofounder said he and his colleagues have received thousands of threats in the past to blow up their office in the Polish capital He added that following Protasevichs arrest they have received a flow of new threats that we are the next that we will not be even taken to Belarus but will be executed right away that our office will be blown up and we have to be afraid.


Putsila said that the group relies on police protection and undertake all the possible safety measures to minimize threats and carry out our everyday work.

Belarus has been rocked by months of protests which were triggered by Lukashenkos reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition rejected as rigged More than 34000 people have been arrested in Belarus since then and thousands beaten.


US President Joe Biden said late Monday that he asked his team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible in close coordination with the European Union other allies and partners and international organizations.

This outrageous incident and the video Mr. Protasevich appears to have made under duress are shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press Bidens statement said.

First published on: 25-05-2021 at 08:21:53 pm
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