The European Union has banned Belarusian airlines from EU airspace and airports after accusing the country’s authorities of “hijacking” an airplane and forcing it to land in Minsk for the removal of a dissident journalist.
The EU’s heads of state and government further instructed EU-based airlines to avoid flying over Belarusian airspace and announced it will be taking further sanctions against several Belarusian officials and entities, as well as other targeted economic sanctions.
On Monday, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo had called on the EU to impose sanctions on Belarus ahead of an EU summit meeting in Brussels. De Croo also suggested banning Belavia Belarusian Airlines from operating in the EU.
Since the EU’s statement, airlines including Ryanair, Lufthansa, Air France, AirBaltic, KLM, and the Scandinavian SAS have already stated that they will avoid Belarusian airspace “until further notice”. Many flights will have to make small diversions via Poland.
On Sunday, Belarusian opposition figure Roman Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapega were arrested after the Ryanair flight between Greece and Lithuania, which they were on, was intercepted by fighter jets reportedly ordered by President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime to land in Minsk, where Protasevich is now being held in a prison.
Protasevich, the former editor-in-chief of the influential opposition media Nexta, which played a key role in organising the protest movement against Lukashenko in 2020, later appeared in a video distributed online by Belarusian state television on Monday, admitting to being involved in large-scale anti-government protests.
On Monday evening, Protasevich’s mother told Belarusian opposition media that her son might be hospitalised in Belarus’ capital because of heart problems, whilst his father told BBC that he fears his son may be tortured.
Protasevich is being prosecuted in Belarus for “organising mass disorder”, a crime punishable by 15 years in prison, however, he may also be placed on a list of “individuals involved in terrorist activities”, which could mean he faces the death penalty in Belarus, the last country to apply this sentence in Europe.
The sanctions and bans put in place against Belarus will be in addition to those ordered in recent months, and which were recently extended for another year, following the presidential elections held in August 2020, deemed “rigged” by the EU, and the violent crackdown on peaceful protesters, opposition members, and journalists.
The EU has also asked the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to urgently investigate this “unprecedented and unacceptable” incident, which “endangered aviation safety”.
Meanwhile, the United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote on Twitter on Sunday that the incident was a “brutal and shocking act by the Lukashenko regime,” and called for an international investigation. The US also demanded the immediate release of Protasevich.
The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also “supports calls for a full, transparent and independent investigation” into the events which unfolded, and “urges all relevant actors to cooperate in such an investigation.”
Ambassadors of the NATO member states announced that they will meet on Tuesday to discuss the arrest.