A chorus of EU leaders called for swift sanctions after Belarus’s authoritarian ruler forced a Ryanair plane to land in Minsk and detained a prominent opposition journalist, in what was widely condemned as a state-sponsored hijacking of a commercial flight.
Ahead of a preplanned EU leaders’ summit on May 24, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen urged a toughening of the bloc’s existing sanctions against Belarus imposed over the crackdown by the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
“The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences. Those responsible for the #Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned,” von der Leyen wrote on May 23 in a late-night tweet.
Raman Pratasevich, an opposition activist and journalist who faces charges in Belarus that could bring 15 years in prison, was aboard the Ryanair flight from Athens, Greece, to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius when it changed course between the two EU members to head for Minsk.
Belarusian state news agency BelTA reported that Lukashenka had personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the Ryanair plane to land in Minsk, ostensibly due to a bomb threat. Officials later said no explosives were found on the plane.
Pratasevich and his girlfriend were taken away by police shortly after the Ryanair flight landed in the Belarusian capital. Ryanair said the flight arrived safely in Vilnius on May 23 after a delay in Minsk of several hours.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda slammed the arrest of Pratasevich, calling it an “unprecedented event" and saying the Belarusian regime is “behind this abhorrent action.”
He said EU leaders would discuss “a state-sponsored terror act” by Belarus at the summit in Brussels and “serious sanctions against the regime.”
A senior EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL that potential measures may include suspending overflights of all EU airlines over Belarus, banning Belarus’s state airliner Belavia from landing at EU airports, and suspending transit from Belarus to the EU.
“Belarusian airspace is completely unsafe for any commercial flight, and it should be deemed this not only by the EU but by the international community. Because now, this instrument could be used for any plane crossing Belarusian airspace,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said.
EU leaders will also call for an investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which earlier described the incident as a possible violation of international air travel rules under the Chicago Convention.
The EU was already preparing a fourth round of sanctions before the Ryanair event, including further asset freezes and visa bans on individuals and entities over the crackdown on the opposition and what the West and opposition deem a fraudulent presidential election last August.
The diversion of the flight between two EU members and the detention of Pratasevich was met by a torrent of criticism from Western governments.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki earlier asked the European Council's president to discuss immediate sanctions against Belarus, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the incident requires a "strong and united" response from the European Union.
The government in Ireland, where Ryanair is headquartered, described the incident as "absolutely unacceptable," while NATO called it a “serious and dangerous" incident and demanded an international investigation.
"This is an Irish Airline with EU citizens on board, forced to land in Minsk, while travelling between EU cities...EU inaction or indecision will be taken as weakness by Belarus," Irish Foreign Minister and Defense Minister Simon Coveney said on Twitter.
The German and British foreign ministries also expressed alarm and called for consequences, and European Council President Charles Michel said an investigation by the ICAO "will be essential."
U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher condemned the Ryanair incident as an example of Lukashenka’s “contempt” for the international community.
“Faking a bomb threat and sending MiG-29s to force @RyanAir to Minsk in order to arrest a @Nexta journalist on politically motivated charges is dangerous and abhorrent,” she wrote on Twitter.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the United States supports an ICAO investigation and was closely coordinating a response with the EU, Lithuania, and Greece.
"The United States strongly condemns the forced diversion of a flight between two EU member states and the subsequent removal and arrest of journalist Raman Pratasevich in Minsk. We demand his immediate release," he said in a statement.
Pratasevich was a key administrator of the Telegram channel NEXTA Live, which has been covering the protests that broke out in Belarus following the country’s disputed presidential election last August.
Belarusian authorities in November 2020 launched investigations into Pratasevich and a colleague, Stsyapan Putsila, on suspicion of the organization of mass disorder, disruption of the social order, and inciting social hatred.
"It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation of secret services to capture the plane in order to detain activist and blogger Raman Pratasevich," exiled opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya said on Telegram.
The opposition says that Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to neighboring Lithuania after the election due to concerns about her safety, was the true winner of last year's presidential vote.
Pratasevich was a 2017-18 Vaclav Havel Journalism fellow in Prague. The Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship -- a joint initiative of RFE/RL and the Czech Foreign Ministry -- is available to aspiring, independent journalists in the European Union's Eastern Partnership countries and Russia.
Pratasevich spoke to Current Time from an undisclosed location in Poland on November 19 after Belarusian authorities issued a warrant for his arrest.
"It seems to me that the [state] power now considers nearly any expression of a different opinion in general to be a crime,” Pratasevich said, saying this was clear from the number of people who were being detained. Current Time is a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
Belarus has been rocked by protests since Lukashenka, in power since 1994, was declared the landslide winner of the poll amid allegations of vote-rigging. Since then, more than 30,000 people have been detained, hundreds beaten or tortured, and journalists targeted in the crackdown by Lukashenka, whose government has been hit by Western sanctions.
In October 2020, a court in Minsk designated the NEXTA Live channel and its logo as extremist and instructed the Information Ministry to restrict access to information resources using the name and logo of the Telegram channel, as well as their distribution in the Belarusian segment of the Internet.
Fearing prosecution, Pratasevich and Putsila fled the country and their whereabouts have not been known.
In October 2020, Putsila, along with several Belarusian activists, received the European Parliament's 2020 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
Media in Belarus have been targeted by the Lukashenka government in the ongoing crackdown. The watchdog Reporters Without Borders has designated Belarus as the most dangerous spot in Europe for journalists.