European countries imposed sanctions on Belarus on Monday, banning its state airline from flying to Europe, in an effort to punish President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime for pressuring a Ryanair flight to land in the country in order to apprehend a prominent dissident on board.
The international uproar over Sunday’s incident has continued to rise, with Belarus accused of using a bogus bomb warning to divert the airliner to Minsk in order to apprehend Roman Protasevich, a blogger who was a central figure in last year’s mass demonstrations against Lukashenko.
The 27 leaders of the European Union countries met in Brussels on Monday night and decided to rapidly draft new individual and targeted economic sanctions against Belarus. They have agreed to demands that airlines stop flying over Belarus and that Belarusian airlines be barred from flying in Europe.
The decision to restrict flights from Belarus expressed European countries’ outrage as well as people’s conviction that there must be repercussions for Lukashenko’s administration, which has already faced a barrage of sanctions.
On Monday, Belarusian state television broadcast a video of Protasevich, which was the first time he had been seen since his detention. Protasevich appears to confess to the camera from a prison in the city in the film.
He claimed to be well and confessed to charges of organizing mass disorder, despite being tired and under duress.
“Officers treated me with the utmost respect and in accordance with the rules. In addition, I am continuing to cooperate with the investigation and confessing to the accusation of organizing mass disorder in Minsk” he said
The video first surfaced after independent Belarusian media reported that Protasevich was hospitalized with a heart condition. In the film, Protasevich denied that he had any health issues.
Protasevich and 120 other passengers were on board a plane flying from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital when it was abruptly diverted when it reached the Lithuanian border. Belarusian air traffic controllers told Ryanair’s flight of an alleged security warning and ordered it to land in Minsk, according to the airline. The flight was also escorted by a Belarusian Mig-29 fighter jet.
Belarusian officers apprehended Protasevich and arrested Sepega on the site. The remaining passengers were then searched and detained for several hours while Belarusian authorities pretended to deal with a bomb threat.
The Belarusian allegation compelled Hamas to deny it, with a spokesman claiming that the claim was false and that the party did not use such tactics.
Protasevich founded the Telegram-based news channel NEXTA, which was instrumental in last year’s mass demonstrations against Lukashenko. The website, along with another called NEXTA Live, has over 2 million viewers and helped organize protests by publishing videos of them as well as police brutality, which helped catalyze the nonviolent uprising against Lukashenko.
Last year, Belarusian authorities put Protasevich on a terrorist watchlist and filed criminal charges against him for mass disorder and inciting hate, crimes that carried 15 and 12-year prison terms, respectively.
Dmitry Protsevich, Protsevich’s father, told Radio Free Europe on Monday that he feared his son would be tortured in Belarus. Sapega, his ex, is still in custody, according to her mother, and is being held in Minsk’s infamous Okrestina prison. Sapega, a Russian citizen, is a student at Vilnius University.
“I just want to say that my son is a hero. I sincerely hope that the international community will rise to the occasion. It’s extremely difficult for me, “Her voice was trembling when she spoke.
Pete Buttigieg, the United States Secretary of Transportation, said in a statement on Monday night: “We firmly condemn the Belarusian government’s conduct in forcing a Ryanair flight to be diverted in order to apprehend journalist Roman Pratasevich. The United States has called for his immediate release, citing the importance of a free press in a working society.”
“This incident requires an urgent, international, open, and reliable inquiry,” Buttigieg said. “The Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration are working together with the State Department and other US agencies to determine exactly what occurred and what steps might be necessary to keep the flying public secure.”
The plane was finally able to take off, leaving behind Protasevich and Sepega, as well as three other people whom European officials believe to be Belarusian intelligence officers.
Meanwhile, Belarusian officials have maintained that they were reacting to a genuine bomb warning and acting to shield travelers.
On Monday, a senior official from Belarus’ transport ministry attempted to make the implausible assertion that the hoax bomb threat was submitted by Hamas, a Palestinian militant group.
Artyom Sikorsky, head of the ministry’s aviation section, read aloud in Russian a letter he said Hamas had sent to Minsk airport during a press conference.
The message read by Sikorsky began, “We, the Hamas Soldiers, demand Israel cease-fire in the Gaza Strip,” and went on to demand that the EU stop helping Israel. He didn’t say why Hamas would send the message only to Minsk airport or why it would demand a truce days after one had started.