27 leaders of the European Union have declared sanctions, as well as sealing the airspace above Belarus, following the forced landing of a Ryanair plane in the country last Sunday.
Journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were escorted off the flight, which had been scheduled for Vilnius, Lithuania, where they were both living, in what Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary declared “state-sponsored hijacking”.
Protasevich, a Belarus native living in exile in Lithuania, was well-known to the Belarusian authorities. He was a journalist who had made himself known by operating an influential government opposition telegram channel, Nexta, which was highly instrumental in the organising of last year’s protests, following alleged election fraud.
This was following strong criticism of Belarus’ 2020 Presidential election, whereby Alexander Lukashenko, retained power after 26 years as the country’s leader. Protasevich is wanted on charges of inciting unrest and terrorism and had been added to the country’s watchlist of terrorists. Belarus is the only country in the EU and of the former Soviet Union that still uses the death penalty, which may apply to charges of terrorism. Although there were no executions in 2020, Amnesty International reports two in 2019.
The Ryanair plane, which left from Athens, was nearing its final destination of Vilnius when the Belarusian transport authority announced a bomb threat and diverted the flight to Minsk. Upon dissent, Roman and Sofia were removed from the aircraft by local authorities. Roman is reported to have said “Don’t do this” to a member of staff onboard, “they will kill me, I am a refugee”.
An opposition leader in Belarus stated that there is good reason to find that the dissident journalist is currently being tortured. Sofia Sapega, however, had no connections with opposition in Belarus despite living there most of her life. She was studying law in Vilnius. There have been protests at the university where she had been due to sit her final exams, resulting from her detainment.
The unprecedented action by Belarus has been widely criticised by the EU and beyond. Taoiseach Michael Martin stated that the move “reflects a growing authoritarianism” and countries wherein democracy and the rule of law prevail, we “must stand up to this type of behaviour”. Merkel stated that the reported bomb threat was “completely implausible”.
27 European leaders responded to the action by sealing the airspace above Belarus, calling on all EU airlines to stop flying over Belarus. The national airline of Belarus, Belavia, has also been banned from flying over the bloc’s airspace.
This was an unexpectedly quick development by the European leaders, but Ursala von der Leyen dubbed the situation “utterly unacceptable”, stating “any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences”. There has also been a decision to impose sanctions on Belarus, following a closed-door meeting of the European leaders, in which mobile phones had to be left outside for the full duration of the meeting, owing to a need to “ensure confidentiality of the discussion on Belarus”, said spokesman for President of European Council Charles Michel.
The quick decision to ban use of the airspace above Belarus was unexpected. It was predicted by analysts that the EU would be slow to do so, as airlines are already avoiding flying over Ukraine to the south of the country, due to its ongoing conflict with Russia. This could possibly create difficulties with Asian-European transport.
Britain’s transport secretary, Grant Shapps, also commanded British airlines to avoid flying over Belarus, as well as revoking the permit of Belavia to fly over British airspace. US transport secretary, Pete Buttigieg has called for a safety review of American flights over the country and White House Secretary Jen Psaki stated that “we are outraged” by the current situation.
A video of Protasevich emerged on Monday, where he appears to admit to inciting unrest, however it is widely suspected that this was procured by use of torture.