UK Joins US, EU, Canada In Fresh Sanctions On Belarus

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during his meeting with parliamentarians, members of Constitutional Commission and representatives of public administration bodies in Minsk on May 26, 2021. (Photo by Maxim GUCHEK / BELTA / AFP)

 

Britain on Monday said it had joined the United States, Canada and the European Union in imposing fresh sanctions on Belarus after the detention of an opposition journalist.

The government said it had imposed travel bans and asset freezes against “senior-ranking officials” in President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, as well as oil firm BNK (UK) Ltd.

“The sanctions send a strong signal to the Belarusian authorities that the UK will not tolerate those who repress human rights coming to the UK or using our financial institutions,” the foreign office said in a statement.

Britain said its sanctions were imposed separate to the EU, which it left last year, but in parallel to those announced by Washington, Ottawa and Brussels.

It follows outrage at the diversion in May of a Ryanair flight, which was forced to land in Minsk, upon which Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend were detained.

The British foreign office said the restrictions on BNK (UK) Ltd, which exports Belarusian oil products, would “significantly impact one of the regime’s main revenue streams”.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “The Lukashenko regime endangered the lives of airline passengers and crew in a shameful ruse to snatch Roman Protasevich.

“We will hold the regime to account in coordination with our allies including through further banning travel, freezing assets and cutting off oil export revenue streams.”

In September last year, Britain announced sanctions on human rights grounds against Lukashenko himself, his son and senior figures in the Belarusian government.

AFP

Defiant Lukashenko Defends Plane Diversion, Blasts Critics

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during his meeting with parliamentarians, members of Constitutional Commission and representatives of public administration bodies in Minsk on May 26, 2021. (Photo by Maxim GUCHEK / BELTA / AFP)

 

A defiant President Alexander Lukashenko on Wednesday defended Belarus’s diversion of a European flight and arrest of a dissident on board, lashing out at critics at home and abroad.

In his first public statement since the Ryanair flight was diverted and opposition journalist Roman Protasevich arrested on Sunday, Lukashenko dismissed the international outcry the incident provoked.

“I acted lawfully to protect our people,” Lukashenko said in an address to parliament, the Belta state-run news agency reported.

The criticism was nothing more than another attempt by his opponents to undermine his rule, he said.

“Our ill-wishers at home and abroad have changed their methods of attacking the state,” Lukashenko said.

“They have crossed many red lines and crossed boundaries of common sense and human morality.”

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Lukashenko — often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” — is facing some of the strongest international pressure of his 26-year rule of ex-Soviet Belarus.

The strongman and his allies are already under a series of Western sanctions over a brutal crackdown on mass protests that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term last August.

European leaders are now accusing authorities in Minsk of essentially hijacking the passenger flight, and they agreed this week to cut air links with Belarus and told airliners to avoid the country’s airspace.

– Video ‘confessions’ –

The Belarusian opposition has called for further and stronger measures, and the UN Security Council was set to meet behind closed doors later on Wednesday.

The Athens-to-Vilnius flight was diverted over a supposed bomb scare, with Lukashenko scrambling a MiG-29 fighter jet to accompany the aircraft.

Belarus has released a transcript of communications between Minsk air traffic control and the Ryanair flight, in which the crew was told “you have a bomb on board” and urged to land in Minsk.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during his meeting with parliamentarians, members of Constitutional Commission and representatives of public administration bodies in Minsk on May 26, 2021. – Alexander Lukashenko said on May 26 that “attacks” on the country have crossed “red lines” after the diversion of a Ryanair flight over Belarusian airspace sparked a global outcry. (Photo by Maxim GUCHEK / BELTA / AFP)

 

Lukashenko on Wednesday denied that the fighter jet had forced the airliner to land, calling such claims an “absolute lie”.

Protasevich — the 26-year-old co-founder of opposition Telegram channel Nexta — and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested after the plane landed.

Protasevich, who had been living between Poland and Lithuania, appeared in a video on Monday in which he confessed to helping to organise mass unrest, a charge that could land him in jail for 15 years.

Sapega, a 23-year-old law student at the European Humanities University (EHU) in Lithuania, appeared in another video on Tuesday, saying she worked for a Telegram channel that disclosed information about Belarusian police.

Her lawyer said she had been ordered held for two months of pre-trial detention and Russia confirmed she was being detained as a criminal suspect.

Belarus’s opposition says such videos are routinely recorded by security forces, with participants forced to make statements under duress.

– ‘They’re going to kill him’ –

Protasevich’s mother told AFP in Poland that she had not slept since he was arrested.

“I’m asking, I’m begging, I’m calling on the whole international community to save him,” Natalia Protasevich said, weeping.

“They’re going to kill him in there.”

EU leaders on Monday warned they would adopt further “targeted economic sanctions” against the Belarusian authorities to add to the 88 regime figures and seven companies on a blacklist.

Last year’s protests lasted for months, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to denounce Lukashenko, but were brutally quashed and thousands were detained — many of whom reported torture and abuse in custody.

Many protest leaders — including now-exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who claimed victory in the August vote — fled the country, and the demonstrations have dwindled.

Tikhanovskaya this week urged Europe and Washington to take stronger action against Lukashenko’s regime, but he continues to enjoy solid support from Russia.

Speaking to the European Parliament via video link on Wednesday, Tikhanovskaya called for a series of concrete measures, including a ban on new foreign investments and on Belarus’s main exports like oil and metal products, potash fertilisers and wood.

Diplomatic sources told AFP the UN Security Council would hold an informal meeting on Belarus on Wednesday but was unlikely to agree on a collective statement because of Russia’s support for Minsk.

AFP

EU Cuts Air Links With Belarus Over Forced Plane Landing

A logo for the European Union

 

EU leaders cut Europe’s air links with Belarus on Monday, as strongman Alexander Lukashenko’s regime paraded a dissident journalist arrested after his flight was forced to land in Minsk.

Lukashenko sparked international outrage by dispatching a fighter jet Sunday to intercept a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying wanted reporter Roman Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega.

European leaders meeting in Brussels called for the release of the pair and hit back at Minsk by agreeing to ban Belarusian airlines from the bloc and urging EU-based carriers not to fly over its airspace.

The leaders also warned they would adopt further “targeted economic sanctions” against the Belarusian authorities to add to the 88 regime figures and seven companies already on a blacklist over a crackdown on opposition.

The move came as Belarusian state television broadcast a 30-second video of Protasevich, who had been living between Lithuania and Poland, confirming that he was in prison in Minsk and “confessing” to charges of organising mass unrest.

The footage showed Protasevich — who could face 15 years in jail — with dark markings visible on his forehead, saying he was being treated “according to the law”.

US President Joe Biden slammed the forced diversion of the plane and arrest of Protasevich as “a direct affront to international norms” and said the video appeared to have been made “under duress”.

READ ALSO: Australia To Close Embassy In Afghanistan Over Security Fears

“I welcome the news that the European Union has called for targeted economic sanctions and other measures, and have asked my team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible,” Biden said, in a White House statement.

– ‘Outrageous behaviour’ –

The forced landing of an airliner flying between EU nations has refocused attention on the festering political crisis in Belarus, where Lukashenko has unleashed waves of brutal repression to cling to power.

Western leaders accused Belarusian authorities of essentially hijacking a European plane, while Minsk claimed it had reacted to secure the flight after receiving a bomb threat.

“We will not tolerate any attempt to play Russian roulette with the lives of innocent civilians,” EU chief Charles Michel said.

The EU’s push to punish Minsk followed announcements from some nations and airlines that they were cutting links to Belarus.

London also said it had issued instructions for British aircraft to avoid Belarusian airspace.

Ukraine said it would halt direct flights between the two countries and over Belarus, while Scandinavian airline SAS, Germany’s Lufthansa and Latvia-based regional airline Air Baltic said they would be avoiding Belarusian airspace.

– ‘Completely implausible’ –

Belarus has insisted it acted legally over the grounding of the Ryanair jet, accusing the West of making “unfounded accusations” for political reasons.

Its air force chief said the plane’s captain had decided to land in Belarus “without outside interference” and that the pilot could have chosen to go to Ukraine or Poland.

A senior Belarusian transport official said the authorities received a letter claiming to be from the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas threatening to blow up the plane over Vilnius unless the EU renounced support for Israel.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel dismissed Minsk’s explanations as “completely implausible” and the EU demanded a probe by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

The ICAO, a UN agency, is to meet on Thursday.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres backed calls for a “full, transparent and independent investigation into this disturbing incident”.

– Russia unruffled –

NATO slammed a “serious and dangerous incident” and said envoys from the military alliance were to discuss it on Tuesday.

The EU and other Western countries have already imposed a wide range of sanctions on Lukashenko’s government over its crackdown on opposition demonstrations that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term last August.

But Lukashenko has remained defiant with help from his main backer Russia.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab raised the possibility of that Russia had backed the operation.

“It’s very difficult to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow,” he told parliament.

But Russia has dismissed the outrage in the West.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Minsk was taking an “absolutely reasonable approach” while ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova mocked the Western indignation.

“We are shocked that the West calls the incident in Belarusian air space ‘shocking,'” Zakharova said on Facebook, accusing Western nations of “kidnappings, forced landings and illegal arrests”.

Together with co-founder Stepan Putilo, Protasevich until recently ran the Nexta channel on messaging app Telegram, which helped organise the protests that were the biggest challenge to Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.

With close to two million subscribers on the service, Nexta Live and its sister channel Nexta are prominent opposition channels and helped mobilise protesters in Belarus.

Protasevich and Putilo were added to Belarus’s list of “individuals involved in terrorist activity” last year.

The spiralling tensions around Belarus were in evidence as Minsk expelled the entire staff of Latvia’s embassy, including the ambassador, after accusing Latvian authorities of having used an opposition flag at an ice hockey championship.

AFP

Seven Belarus Activists Sentenced To Jail Over Protests

Protesters hold images of Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko (L), Belarus opposition activist Roman Protasevich (C), and Protasevich’s Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega (R) during a demonstration of Belarusians living in Poland and Poles supporting them in front of the European Commission office in Warsaw on May 24, 2021 Wojtek RADWANSKI / AFP

 

Belarus on Tuesday sentenced seven activists, including senior opposition figure Pavel Severinets, to jail terms of four to seven years, a journalist reported from court.

In a trial held behind closed doors in a court in the eastern Mogilev region, the activists were found guilty of taking part in “mass unrest”, referring to the historic protests that erupted after a disputed presidential election last August.

The demonstrations gripped the country for months after Alexander Lukashenko, 66, claimed a landslide sixth presidential term in the vote the opposition and European leaders said was rigged.

Severinets, who co-chairs the unregistered Belarusian Christian Democracy party, was arrested in June last year after a picket in support of opposition presidential candidates.

The court found him guilty of “organising mass unrest” even though he has been in detention for the past 11 months and did not take part in the mass demonstrations.

The court took two days to consider the case.

The European Union and the United States have sanctioned Lukashenko and his allies with travel bans and asset freezes over the crackdown on protesters.

Thousands were arrested, with many reporting torture in custody. At least four people died during the demonstrations.

On Sunday, Belarus faced a global outcry after the government ordered the diversion of a European flight over Belarusian airspace and arrested a dissident who was on board.

Several EU-based carriers cut air links with Belarus while European leaders also warned of further sanctions on the ex-Soviet country.

Although the protests have since died down, activists and independent journalists continue receiving jail terms in the aftermath.

-AFP

Air France, Singapore Airlines Suspend Flights In Belarus Airspace

Staff members refuel an Airbus A350-900, the first Air France jet long-haul aircraft fuelled with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) produced by French energy group Total at Roissy airport on May 18, 2021.
Eric PIERMONT / AFP

 

Air France, Finnair, and Singapore Airlines became the latest carriers to suspend flights over Belarus on Tuesday after Minsk forced a jet to land to arrest a dissident.

The announcements came a day after European Union leaders urged EU-based airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace and banned the country’s airlines from the 27-nation block.

Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko sparked international outrage by dispatching a fighter jet Sunday to intercept a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying wanted reporter Roman Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega.

Air France said in a statement it had “taken note” of the conclusions of Monday’s EU summit and had suspended flights over Belarus “until further notice”.

Planes already in the air will have their flight plans modified, the French company said.

Singapore Airlines was also rerouting flights “that are bound for Europe to avoid the Belarusian airspace” and would continue to “closely monitor the situation”, a spokesperson said.

“The safety of our customers and crew is our top priority,” a spokesperson told AFP.

Finnair said the next flight that will be affected by its decision to reroute planes is one that was heading to the Turkish coastal town of Gazipasa on Wednesday.

Scandinavian airline SAS, Germany’s Lufthansa, and Latvia-based regional airline Air Baltic made similar announcements on Monday.

Britain also issued instructions for British aircraft to avoid Belarusian airspace while Ukraine decided to halt direct flights between the two countries and over Belarus.

Western leaders have accused Belarusian authorities of essentially hijacking a European plane, while Minsk claimed it had reacted to secure the flight after receiving a bomb threat.

-AFP

Belarus Bans Journalists From Covering Mass Protests

Young men and a woman wear the Belarus flag as passengers disembark from a Ryanair passenger plane from Athens, Greece, that was intercepted and diverted to Minsk on the same day by Belarus authorities, after it landed at Vilnius International Airport, its initial destination, on May 23, 2021. PHOTO: PETRAS MALUKAS / AFP

 

Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko on Monday approved legislation that would ban reporters from providing real-time coverage of unauthorised mass events, piling huge pressure on independent journalists.

Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, signed off on these and other controversial amendments as his regime face global fury over the forced diversion of a European plane with Belarusian dissident Roman Protasevich onboard on Sunday.

The amendments to the law on media and mass events ban reporters from taking part in or organising an unauthorised mass event and providing live coverage of such events.

Any Belarusian national — not just a journalist — is banned from covering an unauthorised rally and using crowdfunding to pay fines over the violation of legislation on mass gatherings, according to the amendments published by state media.

READ ALSO: Taiwan Blames China For Latest WHO Meeting Snub

The publication of results of independent polls will also not be allowed.

Belarus was gripped by months of unprecedented anti-government demonstrations that erupted after a disputed presidential election last August saw Lukashenko claim a sixth term in office.

Belarusian security forces unleashed a harsh crackdown against the protests, detaining demonstrators and pushing opposition leaders into exile. Several people have died in the unrest.

A campaign to muzzle independent media followed, with dozens of journalists already receiving jail terms for covering opposition events.

Lukashenko critics say that the amended legislation legalises the crackdown on independent journalism in the ex-Soviet country.

“Major opportunities have opened up for the eradication of what’s been left of independent media,” Boris Goretsky, deputy head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, told AFP.

According to the association, nearly 30 journalists are currently behind bars in Belarus.

The Interior Ministry on Monday published a list of “extremist” Telegram channels including Nexta, which galvanised and coordinated huge protests against Lukashenko.

Journalist and activist Protasevich, who was detained in Minsk on Sunday following the diversion of his Athens-to-Vilnius Ryanair flight, is a co-founder of Nexta and its former editor.

AFP

Pressure Mounts For Action Over Belarus Forced Landing

A Belarusian dog handler checks luggages off a Ryanair Boeing 737-8AS (flight number FR4978) parked on Minsk International Airport’s apron in Minsk, on May 23, 2021. (Photo by – / ONLINER.BY / AFP)

 

Pressure was building Monday for a tough international response to Belarus’s forced landing of a European airliner so it could arrest an opposition activist.

The Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying dissident journalist Roman Protasevich was diverted while in Belarusian airspace on Sunday over a supposed bomb threat.

Accompanied by a Belarusian fighter jet on the orders of strongman Alexander Lukashenko, the plane landed in the capital Minsk where Protasevich, a 26-year-old who had been living in Lithuania, was arrested along with his Russian girlfriend.

The unprecedented move sparked an international outcry, with Western leaders accusing Belarusian authorities of essentially hijacking a European plane.

As EU leaders prepared to meet for a summit later on Monday, Brussels said it had summoned the Belarusian ambassador to condemn the “coercive act”.

Belarus’s exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said Protasevich’s life was in danger, calling for an international investigation and concrete steps against the regime.

“The time for statements has passed — obviously Belarusians expect decisive actions and assistance from the international community,” she said in a video statement.

The EU and other Western countries have imposed a wide range of sanctions on Lukashenko’s government over a brutal crackdown on opposition demonstrations that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term last August.

Together with co-founder Stepan Putilo, Protasevich until recently ran the Nexta telegram channel that galvanised and directed the protests, which were the biggest challenge to Lukashenko’s rule since he took power in the ex-Soviet country in 1994.

– ‘Act of state terrorism’ –

Belarus on Monday insisted the country had acted legally and accused the West of playing politics.

“There is no doubt that the actions of our competent authorities… fully met established international rules,” foreign ministry spokesman Anatoly Glaz said in a statement, accusing the West of “politicising” the situation.

“Unfounded accusations are being made,” he said.

The diversion of the plane was roundly condemned in Europe, with EU chief Ursula von der Leyen describing it as “outrageous and illegal”, Poland denouncing it as “an act of state terrorism” and France calling for a “strong and united response”.

NATO demanded a probe into the “serious and dangerous incident” and alliance envoys were to discuss it on Tuesday.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called it “a shocking act” that “endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including US citizens.”

Belarus’s main ally Russia showed little concern, however.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Minsk was taking an “absolutely reasonable approach” while ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova mocked the Western indignation.

“We are shocked that the West calls the incident in Belarusian air space ‘shocking,'” Zakharova said on Facebook, accusing Western nations of “kidnappings, forced landings and illegal arrests”.

The International Civil Aviation Organization — the UN’s civil aviation agency — said the forced landing could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention, which protects nations’ airspace sovereignty.

– Calls to ban overflights –

Some in Europe were already taking steps, with Lithuania saying it would not authorise any flights that cross Belarusian territory and Latvia-based regional airline airBaltic saying it would now be avoiding the country’s airspace.

EU leaders will debate tougher sanctions against Belarus on Monday, with Lithuania and France calling for Belarusian airspace to be blocked and aircraft from the country stopped from landing in EU airports.

The bloc was already working on a new round of measures that was expected to see dozens more officials added to an asset freeze and visa ban blacklist in the coming weeks.

Those sanctions could now be expedited and Brussels is expected to propose more measures in response to the forced landing, an EU source said.

“We are assessing the situation and do not rule out any action,” the source said.

– With close to two million subscribers on Telegram, Nexta Live and its sister channel Nexta are prominent opposition channels and helped mobilise protesters in Belarus.

– ‘KGB on board’ –

Protasevich and Putilo were added to Belarus’s list of “individuals involved in terrorist activity” last year.

The two were accused of causing mass unrest, an offence punishable by up to 15 years in jail.

A member of the Nexta team, Tadeusz Giczan, tweeted that representatives of the Belarusian security agency had been on Protasevich’s flight.

“Then when the plane had entered Belarus airspace, the KGB officers initiated a fight with the Ryanair crew insisting there’s an IED (improvised explosive device) onboard,” he said.

Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary said it appeared that agents of the Belarusian KGB were on the plane and also deboarded in Minsk.

“I think it’s the first time it’s happened to a European airline,” O’Leary told Ireland’s Newstalk radio. “It was a state-sponsored hijacking, it was state-sponsored piracy.”

AFP

Defiant Belarus Defends Diversion Of Plane Carrying Activist

A Belarusian dog handler checks luggage off a Ryanair Boeing 737-8AS (flight number FR4978) parked on Minsk International Airport’s apron in Minsk, on May 23, 2021.
ONLINER.BY / AFP

 

A defiant Belarus on Monday defended its forced diversion of a European plane carrying an opposition activist after the unprecedented move provoked a global outcry and calls for a tough response.

The Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying dissident journalist Roman Protasevich was diverted while in Belarusian airspace on Sunday over a supposed bomb threat.

Accompanied by a Belarusian fighter jet, it landed in the capital Minsk where Protasevich, a 26-year-old who had been living between EU states Poland and Lithuania, was arrested along with his girlfriend.

Accusing strongman Alexander Lukashenko’s regime of essentially hijacking a European plane, Western leaders insisted the move would not go unanswered.

Many in Europe called for tough new sanctions to be agreed at a pre-planned summit on Monday, while Washington denounced the “shocking act” and demanded Protasevich’s release.

In its first official reaction to the incident, Belarus’s foreign ministry insisted the country had acted legally and accused the West of trying to play politics.

“There is no doubt that the actions of our competent authorities… fully met established international rules,” ministry spokesman Anatoly Glaz said in a statement, accusing the West of “politicising” the situation.

“Unfounded accusations are being made,” he said.

 

Passengers are greeted as they disembark from a Ryanair passenger plane from Athens, Greece, that was intercepted and diverted to Minsk on the same day by Belarus authorities, after it landed at Vilnius International Airport, its initial destination, on May 23, 2021.
PETRAS MALUKAS / AFP

 

‘Act of state terrorism’

The EU and other Western countries have already imposed a wide range of sanctions on Lukashenko’s government over a brutal crackdown on opposition demonstrations that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term last August.

Together with co-founder Stepan Putilo, Protasevich until recently ran the Nexta telegram channel that galvanised and directed the protests, which were the biggest challenge to Lukashenko’s rule since he took power in the ex-Soviet country in 1994.

The diversion of the plane was roundly condemned in Europe, with EU chief Ursula von der Leyen describing it as “outrageous and illegal”, Poland denouncing it as “an act of state terrorism” and France calling for a “strong and united response”.

NATO demanded a probe into the “serious and dangerous incident” while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called it “a shocking act” that “endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including US citizens”.

Belarus’s main ally Russia showed little concern however, with foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova mocking the Western indignation.

“We are shocked that the West calls the incident in Belarusian air space ‘shocking,'” Zakharova said on Facebook, accusing Western nations of “kidnappings, forced landings and illegal arrests”.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on the incident, saying it was up to international aviation authorities to evaluate what had happened.

Latvia-based regional airline airBaltic said it would now be avoiding Belarusian airspace.

With close to two million subscribers on Telegram, Nexta Live and its sister channel Nexta are prominent opposition channels and helped mobilise protesters in Belarus.

Protasevich and Putilo were added to Belarus’s list of “individuals involved in terrorist activity” last year.

The two were accused of causing mass unrest, an offence punishable by up to 15 years in jail.

“It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation of secret services to capture the plane in order to detain activist and blogger Roman Protasevich,” exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said on Telegram.

The opposition says that Tikhanovskaya, who fled to neighbouring Lithuania after last year’s presidential election, was the true winner of the vote.

 

 

‘KGB on board’

A member of the Nexta team, Tadeusz Giczan, tweeted that representatives of the Belarusian security agency had been on Protasevich’s flight.

“Then when the plane had entered Belarus airspace, the KGB officers initiated a fight with the Ryanair crew insisting there’s an IED (improvised explosive device) onboard,” he said.

Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary said it appeared that agents of the Belarusian KGB were on the plane and also deboarded in Minsk.

“I think it’s the first time it’s happened to a European airline,” O’Leary told Ireland’s Newstalk radio. “It was a state-sponsored hijacking, it was state-sponsored piracy.”

Passengers described seeing Protasevich looking nervous as the flight was diverted to Minsk.

“He started panicking and saying this was because of him,” Monika Simkiene, a 40-year-old Lithuanian, told AFP after the plane finally landed in Vilnius several hours later than its scheduled arrival time.

“He just turned to people and said he was facing the death penalty.”

His girlfriend Sofia Sapega — a Russian citizen and law student at the European Humanities University (EHU) in Lithuania — was arrested along with him, her university confirmed on Monday.

-AFP

Global Outrage As Belarus Diverts Flight, Arrests Opposition Activist

This picture taken in Minsk on March 25, 2012 shows former editor of Belarusian opposition Telegram channel ‘@nexta_tv’ Roman Protassevitch during ‘Freedom Day’ rally.
STR / AFP

 

Belarus forced a passenger plane carrying a wanted opposition activist to divert and land in its capital, provoking a furious outcry from world leaders who described it as an “act of state terrorism” ahead of an EU summit Monday expected to toughen sanctions on Minsk.

Dissident journalist Roman Protasevich was detained on Sunday after Ryanair flight FR4978 was pulled from its Athens-to-Vilnius route and — accompanied by a Belarusian fighter jet — diverted to the capital city, state television reported.

Passengers described seeing the 26-year-old, who had been living in Poland, looking nervous as the flight was diverted to Minsk.

“He just turned to people and said he was facing the death penalty,” Monika Simkiene, a 40-year-old Lithuanian, told AFP in Vilnius after landing — without Protasevich — several hours later.

Edvinas Dimsa, 37, said: “He was not screaming, but it was clear that he was very much afraid. It looked like if the window had been open, he would have jumped out of it.”

The incident comes as the European Union is set to discuss toughening its existing sanctions against Belarus, imposed over the crackdown by the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko on opposition protesters, at a pre-planned summit on Monday.

“The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences,” EU chief Ursula von der Leyen tweeted, calling for Protasevich’s release, and adding those responsible “must be sanctioned”.

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki denounced Belarus’s actions as “an act of state terrorism”, while French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called for a “strong and united response” from the EU.

Lithuania and Latvia have called for international flights not to use Belarusian airspace.

The International Civil Aviation Organization — the UN’s civil aviation agency — said the forced landing “could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention”, which protects nations’ airspace sovereignty.

Minsk’s airport had released a statement earlier saying the plane had to make an emergency landing there at 1215 GMT following a bomb scare.

“The plane was checked, no bomb was found and all passengers were sent for another security search,” said Nexta, a Belarus opposition channel on the Telegram messaging app, which Protasevich previously edited.

Lukashenko’s press service said on its own Telegram channel the president had given the order to divert the flight and had ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to accompany the plane.

It comes as Belarus authorities intensify their crackdown on the opposition following historic protests that gripped the ex-Soviet country after last year’s disputed presidential election.

A Belarusian dog handler checks luggages off a Ryanair Boeing 737-8AS (flight number FR4978) parked on Minsk International Airport’s apron in Minsk, on May 23, 2021.
ONLINER.BY / AFP

‘Absolutely unacceptable’

The United States “strongly condemned” the arrest, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling for Protasevich’s release.

“This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including US citizens,” he said in a statement, using an alternative spelling of the Belarusian leader’s name.

He added on Twitter: “We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps.”

European leaders reacted with fury. In Athens, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted: “The forced landing of a commercial plane to detain a journalist is an unprecedented, shocking act.”

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda described Belarus’s actions as “abhorrent” and prosecutors said they had opened a criminal investigation for the hijacking of a plane.

The government in Ireland, where Ryanair is headquartered, described the incident as “absolutely unacceptable”, while NATO called it “dangerous” and demanded an international investigation.

Since last August’s disputed election, Belarusians have taken to the streets demanding the resignation of Lukashenko, who has ruled for over two decades.

Protasevich and Nexta founder Stepan Putilo, 22, were added to Belarus’s list of “individuals involved in terrorist activity” last year.

The two — both now based in Poland — were accused of causing mass unrest, an offence punishable by up to 15 years in jail.

Belarus also labelled the Nexta Telegram channels and its logo “extremist” and ordered them blocked.

With close to two million subscribers on Telegram, Nexta Live and its sister channel Nexta are prominent opposition channels and helped mobilise protesters.

“It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation of secret services to capture the plane in order to detain activist and blogger Roman Protasevich,” exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said on Telegram.

The opposition says that Tikhanovskaya, who fled to neighbouring Lithuania after the election, was the true winner of last year’s presidential vote.

 KGB involved?

A member of the Nexta team, Tadeusz Giczan, tweeted that representatives of the Belarusian security agency had been on Protasevich’s flight.

“Then when the plane had entered Belarus airspace, the KGB officers initiated a fight with the Ryanair crew insisting there’s an IED onboard,” he said.

A spokeswoman for state company Lithuanian Airports, Lina Beisine, told AFP that Minsk airport had said the flight was redirected “due to a conflict between a member of the crew and the passengers”.

In a statement — that did not mention Protasevich — Ryanair said the flight’s crew had been notified by Belarus air traffic control of “a potential security threat onboard” and were instructed to divert to Minsk, the “nearest” airport.

The EU and the United States have sanctioned Lukashenko and dozens of officials and businessmen tied to his regime with asset freezes and visa bans.

-AFP

Belarus Jails Journalists For Two Years Over Protest Coverage

A file photo of a court gavel.

 

A court in Belarus on Thursday sentenced a pair of television journalists to two years in prison for covering a protest last year, the first lengthy jail term in a legal crackdown on independent news media.

Standing defiant in a cage, Katerina Bakhvalova, 27, and Daria Chultsova, 23, flashed V for victory signs as they smiled and blew kisses to the courtroom ahead of the verdict.

The two women were detained in November while filming one of the anti-government rallies that swept Belarus after strongman Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in an August election that the opposition said was rigged.

The women, who denied their guilt on the first day of their trial earlier this month, were accused of “attracting people to participate in a mass event” via their broadcast and convicted of leading “group actions that grossly violate public order”.

Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya praised the two journalists for their defiance following the verdict.

READ ALSO: Ugandan Soldiers Jailed For Assaulting Journalists

“I know that we will not live in a cage. We will achieve truth and freedom — thanks to Ekaterina Andreyeva, Daria Chultsova, all honest journalists,” she wrote on her Telegram channel, using Bakhvalova’s pen name.

The case has sparked widespread condemnation from Western countries and advocacy groups.

Human Rights Watch on Thursday urged Belarusian authorities to “stop treating journalists as their enemies”, while the president of neighbouring Poland called for “an amnesty”.

“At the same time, Poland calls on all partners in the European Union to respond in solidarity, consistently and resolutely to the latest manifestation of suppression of fundamental rights and freedoms,” Krzysztof Szczerski, an advisor to Polish President Andrzej Duda, wrote on Twitter.

EU foreign policy spokesman Peter Stano called the case a continuation of a “shameful crackdown on media” and said the bloc “strongly condemns” the prison sentences.

– ‘Absurd situation’ –

After protests erupted last year, Belarusian authorities unleashed a crackdown that left at least four dead and thousands in jail.

Bakhvalova and Chultsova, who work for the Poland-based television channel Belsat, were detained while filming a rally in November in support of a protester the opposition believes died at the hands of Lukashenko’s security services.

“I showed these events live. For this I was thrown into jail on trumped-up charges,” Belsat reported Bakhvalova as telling the judge Wednesday in her final statement before sentencing.

“It’s an absurd situation because the journalists were just covering the protest,” her lawyer told reporters after the ruling outside the court in the Belarusian capital Minsk.

The demonstrator, 31-year-old former soldier Roman Bondarenko, died from brain damage in Minsk after police arrested him.

Investigators later said he showed signs of intoxication, but independent Belarusian media cited a doctor as saying no alcohol had been found in his system.

The journalist who published the story, Katerina Borisevich, and the doctor, Artyom Sorokin, were soon detained on charges of “divulging medical secrets, which entailed grave consequences”. They are set to face trial on Friday.

The prosecutor general’s office said in a statement Thursday that it had opened a criminal case into Bondarenko’s death.

– Growing crackdown –

Lukashenko weathered the protests and last week claimed his ex-Soviet country had defeated a foreign intervention.

As the demonstrations subside, the authorities are pursuing a number of criminal cases against activists and the press.

Eleven journalists are currently detained in connection with the protests, according to the independent Belarus Association of Journalists (BAJ).

On Wednesday a trial also began of leading opposition member Viktor Babaryko, who was arrested ahead of the presidential election after he announced he would run against Lukashenko.

The former banker was one of several opposition figures who were arrested or fled the country.

Several Western leaders have refused to recognise the election results, and the European Union has imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and his allies.

But Lukashenko continues to receive Moscow’s backing and the Kremlin said Thursday that Russian President Vladimir Putin would meet with him next week.

AFP

Belarus Protesters Take To The Streets With New Tactic

Opposition supporters hold former white-red-white flags of Belarus as they gather to protest against police violence and the Belarus presidential election results in Minsk, on November 29, 2020.  STRINGER / AFP

 

 

Opposition protesters in Belarus took to the streets of the capital Minsk on Sunday in the latest of three months of demonstrations against the re-election of strongman president Alexander Lukashenko.

Since an August election, Belarus has been gripped by massive protests that erupted after Lukashenko, 66, secured a sixth term as president of the ex-Soviet republic.

The opposition believes the election was rigged and political novice Svetlana Tikhanovskaya — who ran against Lukashenko in the place of her jailed husband — was the true winner of the polls.

In recent weeks, authorities imposed an intense crackdown in which hundreds were detained and protesters were prevented from gathering in central Minsk.

That prompted Lukashenko’s opponents to change tactic, calling on supporters to create small gatherings in every district of the capital.

Dmitry Golubev, a 20-year-old student, told AFP that he was rallying for “fair elections, Lukashenko’s resignation and the release of political prisoners”.

“We are not evil people, not foreign agents…, we are citizens of Belarus, who want peace, calm and respect for human rights in their country,” Golubev said, holding a red and white flag — a symbol of the Belarus opposition.

According to local media, around 20 rallies were recorded on Sunday across the city.

“Large columns of people have assembled in all districts of Minsk, without exception. The Lukashenko police are desperately rushing from district to district,” said opposition Telegram channel Nexta Live that has helped coordinate the ongoing demonstrations.

As in previous weeks, several metro stations in the city centre were shut and mobile connection was limited.

Riot police were deployed in large numbers, with the Tut.by news website reporting the use of stun grenades and tear gas.

Minsk police said on Sunday that around 250 people were taken into police custody during the protests in the capital.

“Everyone takes to the streets in their district and sees dozens, hundreds and thousands of supporters,” Tikhanovskaya, 38, said in a video address posted on her Telegram channel on Saturday.

READ ALSO: Suicide Car Bomb Kills 26 Afghan Security Personnel

She added that Belarusians are a “proud, brave and peaceful people that have learned the price of freedom and will never agree to live without it”.

Tikhanovskaya fled to EU member Lithuania shortly after the August vote and has received support from several Western leaders, who refuse to recognise the election results.

The European Union has slapped sanctions on Lukashenko and a number of his allies over election rigging and a violent crackdown on demonstrators.

Belarus police detained thousands of protesters in the first days of the demonstrations, with many reporting torture and abuse in custody.

Lukashenko, who has the firm backing of Moscow, has refused to step down and instead has suggested reforms to the constitution to placate the opposition.

AFP

Belarus Opposition Leader Meets EU to urge sanctions

Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya addresses members of parliament at the EU headquarters in Brussels on September 21, 2020. – European foreign ministers welcomed Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to Brussels as they prepare EU sanctions to support her battle against the Minsk regime. (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP)

 

Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on Monday urged the EU to show courage and step up its support for her movement, as the bloc’s internal squabbles about sanctions rolled on.

The former Soviet republic has been convulsed by unprecedented demonstrations against President Alexander Lukashenko since he was returned to power in a disputed August 9 election and launched a brutal crackdown.

Tikhanovskaya met EU foreign ministers in Brussels and urged them to sanction Lukashenko but, despite repeated statements condemning the veteran strongman and warning of measures, after 44 days the bloc has yet to act.

“Sanctions are very important in our fight, because sanctions is part of pressure that will force the so-called authorities to start dialogue with us,” she told reporters.

“I think leaders have reasons not to push for these sanctions but at this meeting I asked just to be more brave in their decisions.”

Cyprus, which has good relations with Lukashenko’s key supporter Russia, has blocked EU agreement on measures against Belarus, insisting that sanctions against Turkey over a maritime gas drilling dispute must be agreed at the same time.

Nicosia’s position has support from some EU countries but the patience of others is wearing thin, with one diplomat on Friday saying Cyprus was effectively “shielding” Lukashenko.

As he arrived, Cypriot foreign minister Nikos Christodoulides said the EU must maintain a coherent response to violations of sovereignty and human rights.

“Our reaction to any kind of violation of our core basic values and principles, cannot be a la carte. It needs to be consistent,” he said.

– ‘Sanction Lukashenko’ –

After the meeting, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters the ministers had been “really impressed by the courage and perseverance of the Belarusian people, especially Belarusian women who show a real sense of leadership”.

He said the EU would support an inclusive national dialogue in Belarus and reiterated that Brussels does not recognise Lukashenko as the legitimate president.

The EU and other Western powers have rejected the result of the election, saying the poll was not free and fair, and Brussels has drawn up a list of around 40 members of Lukashenko’s regime to hit with asset freezes and travel bans.

But with ministers still deadlocked, the matter will be taken up by EU leaders at a summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, with diplomats hoping they will find a way to agree both sets of sanctions.

“We have to conclude that nothing has improved in the last weeks. The violence Lukashenko has used against peaceful demonstrators is totally unacceptable,” Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said.

“We must also address the question of whether Mr Lukashenko, who is the main responsible, should not also be sanctioned by the European Union,” he said.

The strongman, who has ruled Belarus for more than a quarter of a century, has responded to the protests with a security clampdown and turned to his longstanding ally Russia for help.

Tikhanovskaya, who fled to Lithuania for her own safety after the election, backed sanctions on Lukashenko himself, saying “of course I think it is necessary”.

And she urged the EU to make a formal call for new elections — something it has so far held off from, despite rejecting the August 9 poll as illegitimate.

The ministers are also considering what finance could be given to civil society in Belarus, after Poland called for a billion-euro stabilisation fund to help the country.

But Tikhanovskaya warned care must be taken to ensure the money does not end up in Lukashenko’s coffers, effectively funding him to carry out further repression.

Tikhanovskaya’s meeting with EU ministers, followed by an appearance at the European Parliament, is part of her effort to maintain international pressure on Lukashenko as he clings to power.

On Friday she urged the international community to respond to abuses in Belarus “in the strongest terms” in a video appearance at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that was repeatedly interrupted by the Belarusian ambassador.

AFP