EU leaders triggered new economic sanctions against Belarus and punitive measures against its national airline as a dissident taken from a “hijacked” Ryanair flight was paraded on the country’s television news apparently confessing to crimes against the state.
In a summit communique swiftly agreed in Brussels on Monday night, the EU’s 27 heads of state and government condemned the forced landing of flight FR4978 in Minsk and called for the immediate release of opposition blogger Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.
Late on Monday, Joe Biden condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the operation to arrest Protasevich, calling it “a direct affront to international norms” and called for his release. He welcomed EU sanctions, adding that his team was assessing “appropriate options”.
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, earlier spoke to Belarusian democratic opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya about the “brazen and dangerous grounding” of Protasevich’s Ryanair flight and reassured her of US support for democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms in the country.
Sullivan has also “raised our strong concerns” about Belarus’s action with his Kremlin counterpart, according to the US White House press secretary, Jen Psaki.
The EU statement came shortly after the release of a video in which Protasevich denied reports he had suffered health problems since his arrest in the Belarusian capital and said he was confessing to inciting mass riots, a charge that carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years. The video, which appeared to have been filmed by police, was Protasevich’s first appearance since his arrest.
His father, Dzmitry Protasevich, said the video comments on Monday seemed to be a result of coercion. “It’s likely his nose is broken, because the shape of it has changed and there’s a lot of powder on it. All of the left side of his face has powder,” Dzmitry Protasevich told Reuters in an interview in Russian late on Monday from Wroclaw, Poland, where he and his wife live.
“It’s not his words, it’s not his intonation of speech. He is acting very reserved and you can see he is nervous,” Protasevich said of his son. “And it’s not his pack of cigarettes on the table – he doesn’t smoke these. So I think he was forced.”
The father added: “My son cannot admit to creating the mass disorders, because he just didn’t do any such thing.”
In the video, Protasevich, who was dressed in a black hoodie and seated next to a pack of cigarettes, said: “I can declare that I have no problems with my health, either with my heart or with any other organs. [Police] officers are treating me absolutely correctly and according to the law. I’m currently continuing to cooperate with the investigation and am giving a confession to the organisation of mass arrests in the city of Minsk.”
The opposition journalist appeared to have bruising above his right eye. He has not previously said he planned to confess to the charges against him, and several journalists who know him have said they believe he is under duress.
Under the measures agreed by the EU leaders, a raft of economic sanctions will be applied against those involved in the arrests adding to those imposed months earlier on nearly 60 Belarusian officials, including president Alexander Lukashenko and his son Victor, relating to the crackdown on peaceful protests against last August’s allegedly rigged presidential election result.
The new sanctions will cover individuals involved in the hijacking, businesses that finance the Belarus regime and the aviation sector.
The EU’s heads of state and government also called on EU carriers to avoid Belarusian airspace and agreed “to adopt the necessary measures to ban overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines and prevent access to EU airports” in a major blow to the country’s national airline. European flights over the country’s airspace have already been suspended.
Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, said the actions of the Belarus authorities were “without precedent”, describing attempts by Lukashenko’s regime to explain away the forced landing as a response to a Hamas bomb threat as “totally uncredible.”
An EU official said leaders, who had been asked to leave phones outside for security reasons, had “approved the strong actions” proposed by European Council president Charles Michel and that “the text was endorsed very quickly”.
There was a “strong reaction because serious endangering of aviation safety and passengers on board by Belarusian authorities”, the source added.
Attention was also focusing on Monday evening on Russia’s role in the forced landing of flight FR4978 in Minsk as the UK’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, told the House of Commons it was unlikely to have been done without Kremlin approval.
Raab described the “reckless and dangerous” arrest of Protasevich and Sapega as “a shocking assault on civil aviation and an assault on international law” as the UK government announced the suspension of the operating permit of Belavia, the country’s national airline. The UK is also examining the case for applying sanctions.
Asked about possible Russian involvement, Raab told the Commons: “We don’t have any clear details on that and I’ll be careful on what I say at this point. But as he says 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, but as I say it’s unclear as yet.”
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said the case “should be assessed without any haste and hurry and based on all information available”. He pointed to past incidents of Austria grounding a flight with Bolivian president Evo Morales on board in 2013 and Ukraine grounding a flight in 2016 as his foreign ministry issued a statement describing the EU’s response as “shocking”.
EHU has said Sapega had also been detained by the Minsk investigative committee on “groundless and made-up conditions”. She was preparing to defend her master’s thesis in Vilnius, the university said.
Russia on Monday confirmed that it had made contact with Sapega. According to the BBC Russian service, she managed to write a text message to her mother with just one word: “Mama”.
Ryanair’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, said he believed that agents of the Belarusian KGB were travelling on the plane.
O’Leary’s remarks were the first official confirmation of reports that four other passengers had disembarked in Minsk after the emergency landing, driving speculation that Protasevich was being shadowed by the security services before the plane was forced to land. O’Leary said he believed it was the first time such an incident had taken place with a European airline.
Arriving in Brussels, Ireland’s taoiseach Micheál Martin had said the “forcing down” of the Ryanair plane had been “appalling reckless and unacceptable” and that he would encourage fellow leaders to deliver a “very firm and strong response”.
Belarus’s ambassadors across Europe, including in London, Berlin and Brussels, were summoned by their hosts on Monday for a dressing down over Sunday’s extraordinary events.
Tensions in the region continued to escalate on Monday, however, as Minsk expelled the Latvian ambassador after officials in Riga raised a white-red-white flag in a central square in a show of solidarity with the Belarusian opposition. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy also announced that the country would halt air traffic with Belarus.
Minsk has blamed the west for the escalating tensions, calling the accusations over the incident “hasty and openly belligerent”. “The situation is being intentionally politicised, and there are baseless accusations and labelling,” the Belarusian foreign ministry said in a statement.