European Union leaders decided Monday to impose sanctions against Belarus after the country’s officials forced a civilian plane to land in order to arrest a dissident journalist.
In an announcement, the European Council demanded “the immediate release of [journalist] Raman Pratasevich and [his partner] Sofia Sapega and that their freedom of movement be guaranteed.” They also called “on the International Civil Aviation Organization to urgently investigate this unprecedented and unacceptable incident,” as well as on the European Council “to adopt further targeted economic sanctions.”
They invited the Council to adopt more listings of individuals and entities “as soon as possible on the basis of the relevant sanctions framework.” The group also called on all European Union-based carriers to avoid flying over Belarus. In addition, they called on the Council to create the measures needed in order to prohibit Belarusian airlines from flying over E.U. airspace “and prevent access to EU airports of flights operated by such airlines.”
The leaders came to the agreement quickly in response to the unnerving actions of Belarusian authorities over the weekend.
As The Daily Wire reported:
According to the BBC, flight “FR4978 was bound for Lithuania from Greece when it was forced to switch direction for the Belarusian capital Minsk on Sunday so the authorities there could arrest dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, 26.”
“The pilot announced the emergency diversion, but provided no details,” the BBC added, noting that the commercial plane was accompanied by a fighter jet.
“We all on the plane had panicked because we thought we were going to crash,” said one passenger, according to ABC News. “This was a sudden dive, changing the altitude very drastically. It was very violent. I’ve never felt this on an airplane. Everybody was in shock.”
The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that, according to the chief executive of Ryanair Holdings PLC, the European budget airline “believes members of Belarus’ secret service were aboard one of its airliners when the plane was forced by a Belarus jet fighter to divert to the country’s capital of Minsk.”
Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, described the event as “a case of state-sponsored hijacking.”
According to The Wall Street Journal, Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president, ordered the fighter to be scrambled. “Authorities there then arrested a prominent journalist and opposition activist, before allowing the plane to continue its journey,” the Journal reported. “The incident has sparked an international outcry and raised questions over the legality of the plane’s grounding and the ramifications for the airline industry.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the event was “shocking” on Monday.
“Diverting a flight between two EU member states for the apparent purpose of arresting a journalist constitutes a brazen affront to international peace and security by the [Lukashenko] regime,” Psaki said during a press briefing. “We demand an immediate international, transparent and credible investigation of this incident.”
Dominic Raab, the United Kingdom’s foreign secretary, described the Belarusian actions as a “reckless and dangerous” breach of international law. France warned that flights by Belavia, the Belarusian carrier, could be prohibited from European Union airspace, while Russia described the Western reaction as “shocking” and “hypocritical,” The Daily Wire reported.
This is the most recent incident involving the assault on free speech in Belarus. In February, as reported by The Daily Wire, Belarusian authorities raided the homes and offices of activists and journalists.
As The Associated Press reported at the time, the police “searched the offices of the Belarusian Association of Journalists and the Viasna human rights center as well as the apartments of its members, confiscating their equipment. More than 30 people were briefly detained, and at least three remained in police custody, according to activists.”
The Belarusian Association of Journalists had its members targeted at the time, as well. Its leader, Andrei Bastunets, was one of the people detained and then released. The association’s Vice President, Boris Goretsky, had his home searched. He responded to the events, saying: “This is the largest crackdown ever on journalists and rights activists Europe has ever seen … There have been more than 400 detentions of journalists over the last six months, and the authorities aren’t going to stop at that.”