The European Union agreed Monday to impose sanctions against Belarus, including banning its airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc. The decision comes amid fury over the nation’s forced diversion of a passenger jet to arrest an opposition journalist.
In what EU leaders have called a brazen “hijacking” of the Ryanair jetliner flying from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday, they also demanded the immediate release of the journalist, Roman Pratasevich, a key foe of authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
A brief video clip of Pratasevich, who ran a popular messaging app that played a key role in helping organize massive protests against Lukashenko, was shown on Belarusian state television Monday night, a day after he was removed from the Ryanair flight.
Sitting at a table with his hands folded in front of him and speaking rapidly, Pratasevich said he was in satisfactory health and said his treatment in custody was “maximally correct and according to law.” He added that he was giving evidence to investigators about organizing mass disturbances.
In their unusually swift action in Brussels, the EU leaders also urged all EU-based carriers to avoid flying over Belarus, decided to impose sanctions on officials linked to Sunday’s flight diversion, and urged the International Civil Aviation Organization to start an investigation into what they see as an unprecedented move and what some said amounted to state terrorism or piracy.
The leaders called on their council “to adopt the necessary measures to ban overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines and prevent access to EU airports of flights operated by such airlines.” In addition to Pratasevich, they also urged authorities in Minsk to release his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who was taken off the plane with him.
The text was endorsed quickly by the leaders who were determined to respond with a “strong reaction” to the incident because of 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.
Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the crew there was a bomb threat against the plane as it was crossing through Belarus airspace on Sunday and ordered it to land. A Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane in a brazen show of force by Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for over a quarter-century.
Belarus authorities then arrested the 26-year-old activist, journalist and prominent Lukashenko critic. Pratasevich and his girlfriend were taken off the plane shortly after it landed, and authorities haven’t said where they’re being held. Ryanair Flight FR4978, which began in Athens, Greece, was eventually allowed to continue on to Vilnius, Lithuania.
U.S. President Joe Biden was briefed on the incident and national security adviser Jake Sullivan raised the issue in his call with the secretary of the Russian Security Council, said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. She added the administration condemned what she called the “shocking act” of diverting a flight to detain a journalist.
“It constitutes a brazen affront to international peace and security by the regime. We demand an immediate international, transparent and credible investigation of this incident,” she said, adding the U.S. was in touch with NATO, the EU, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, among others, about next steps.
EU leaders were particularly forceful in their condemnation of the arrest and the move against the plane, which was flying between two of the bloc’s member nations and was being operated by an airline based in Ireland, also a member.
The bloc summoned Belarus’ ambassador “to condemn the inadmissible step of the Belarusian authorities” and said in a statement the arrest was yet again “another blatant attempt to silence all opposition voices in the country.”
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said “the scandalous incident in Belarus shows signs of state terrorism and it’s unbelievable,” while EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it amounted to a “hijacking.”
EU leaders have tried to bring Belarus closer to the bloc — to encourage democratic reforms and reduce the influence of Russia — but have failed so far. Ahead of their summit, some EU leaders threatened more sanctions — from scrapping landing rights in the bloc for Belarus’ national carrier Belavia to exclusions from sports events.
Pratasevich was a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app’s Nexta channel, which played a prominent role in helping organize the anti-Lukashenko protests.
Nearly 2 million Belarusians in the nation of 9.3 million people have followed the channel, which has been the main conduit for organizing demonstrations and offered advice on how to dodge police cordons. It also has run photos, video and other materials documenting the brutal police crackdown on the protests.
Belarus authorities have labeled the channel “extremist” and charged Pratasevich in absentia of inciting mass riots and fanning social hatred. He could face 15 years in prison if convicted.
In November, the Belarusian KGB put Pratasevich on a list of people suspected of involvement in terrorism, an ominous sign that he could face even graver charges. Terrorism is punishable by death in Belarus, the only country in Europe that maintains capital punishment.
Amid the international outrage, Moscow quickly offered a helping hand to its ally.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the episode needs to be investigated — but that it couldn’t be rushed. Moscow and Minsk have close political, economic and military ties, and Lukashenko has relied on Russian support amid Western sanctions.