EU blocks Belarus flights ahead of new round of sanctions – Courthouse News Service

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After Belarus forced a Ryanair flight to land so it could arrest a prominent opposition figure, the EU is toughening up with Minsk by banning flights to and from Belarus and preparing new sanctions.

Belarusians living in Poland and Poles who support them gaze at paper planes during a protest demanding the freedom of Belarusian opposition activist Roman Protasevich in Warsaw, Poland on Monday. (AP Photo / Czarek Sokolowski)

(CN) – Tensions over Belarus escalated on Tuesday, with the European Union banning air travel to and from Belarus and the exiled Belarusian opposition leader calling on the United States and European capitals to take stronger measures against Minsk.

Meeting in Brussels, EU leaders also said they were preparing a new package of sanctions against Belarus and demanded the release of Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old Belarusian journalist and opposition activist who was arrested Sunday in Minsk after the Ryanair flight in which he was. was redirected to the Belarusian capital as part of an alleged operation by the Belarusian KGB secret service.

European diplomats denounce Minsk’s actions as “air piracy” and the latest heinous act of a dictatorial and repressive regime on their doorstep that cannot be tolerated. The EU, often seen as ineffective and largely toothless vis-à-vis authoritarian powers such as Russia and Turkey, was praised on Tuesday for its toughening stance against Belarus.

“Until Protasevich’s kidnapping, the EU’s reaction to what was happening in Belarus was lukewarm,” wrote Judy Dempsey, editor-in-chief of Carnegie Europe, a Brussels-based think tank.

Dempsey said the limited sanctions the EU imposed last year on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and a few other officials and entities “reinforced the perception that the EU was powerless.” But Protasevich’s arrest “ultimately forced the EU’s hand,” she wrote.

Like many commentators in Europe, Dempsey supported tougher EU actions, but said much more needed to be done, such as giving visas to Belarusians facing persecution and providing greater financial support to the EU. Belarusian opposition. On Monday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU has a € 3 billion ($ 3.7 billion) investment program waiting to be spent on the Belarus once “it becomes democratic”.

In Lithuania, Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya urged the EU and the US to put even more pressure on Lukashenko. Tikhanovskaya declared herself the winner in the disputed August elections. She fled to Lithuania after the elections and tried to build international support against the Lukashenko regime from her base in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital.

In Riga, the capital of neighboring Latvia, the official Belarusian flag has been replaced by the red and white Belarusian flag used by the opposition outside an ice hockey arena where Belarus is participating in an international tournament of hockey.

This demonstration of solidarity by the mayor of Riga Martins Stakis for Tikhanovskaya and the Belarusian opposition was violently condemned by Belarus and prompted Minsk to expel the Latvian ambassador to Belarus, Einars Semanis, and the staff of the embassy.

“We cannot leave such provocative actions unanswered,” Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said, according to Belta, the Belarusian news agency. He equated the snub of the flag with an “act of state vandalism” and called it a “cynical violation of all norms of international law”.

The red and white flag used by the opposition had already been adopted by a pre-Soviet republican and democratic Belarusian state. But its use today is seen by the pro-government side as a highly provocative symbol and akin to showing support for fascism, a suggestion rejected by the opposition. The mass protests against Lukashenko became a sea of ​​people displaying red and white.

On Tuesday, Minsk presented his version of the events that led to Protasevich’s arrest and said he behaved correctly in escorting the plane to Minsk after receiving an alleged bomb threat from Hamas, the militant group fighting Israel, which had warned that the Ryanair plane was going to explode over Vilnius. Minsk said he was investigating the false bomb threat and welcomed an international investigation. He claimed that the pilot of the Ryanair plane made the decision to go to Minsk.

Belarusian police arrested journalist Roman Protasevich, center, in Minsk in 2017 (AP Photo / Sergei Grits, File)

Western leaders have dismissed the Minsk account as false.

“The explanations given so far by the Belarusian government for the forced landing of a Ryanair plane in Minsk are absurd and not credible,” said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.

On Monday evening, EU leaders said they were preparing a new package of sanctions against Belarus and blocking flights to and from Belarus, a move that will mainly affect Belavia, the Belarusian airline run by Belarus. ‘State. EU leaders also urged planes to avoid flying over Belarus. They called for an investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a move Belarus hailed.

The EU said the forced landing was unprecedented and illegal. Belarusian and Russian diplomats and experts retaliated, saying similar incidents had taken place with the support of Western countries and their outrage was now hypocritical.

In Moscow, Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, spoke of the forced landing in 2013 of Evo Morales’ plane in search of Edward Snowden, the Agency’s whistleblower. national security. Morales, the then Bolivian president, was returning home after a meeting in Russia, where Snowden had fled.

Zakharova also spoke of more obscure incidents, such as when the personal plane of a former Russian deputy finance minister was forced to land in Florida and a 2016 Belavia flight that was forced to return to Kiev, Ukraine. , leading to the arrest of Armen Martirosyan, a journalist and activist who opposed the 2014 uprising that led to the overthrow of a pro-Russian government in Ukraine. Martirosyan was wanted by the Ukrainian authorities.

In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Belarus acted in accordance with international rules involving a terrorist threat and argued that a Belarusian fighter plane was sent to escort the Ryanair flight because it was a threat to a neighboring Belarusian nuclear power plant.

Zakharova said Protasevich was on a Belarusian list of “persons implicated in extremist activities” and that his arrest was “an internal Belarusian affair”.

The Ryanair flight’s forced landing likely broke international rules, experts say. The International Civil Aviation Organization said in a statement it was calling an urgent meeting on Thursday. The United Nations aviation body said it was “deeply concerned” about what happened to the Ryanair flight and said it “may violate the Chicago Convention”. The Chicago Convention, signed in 1944, is a global agreement defining the rules of international airspace.

In addition to calling for an investigation and preparing for new sanctions, EU leaders also called on Belarus to immediately release Protasevich and his 23-year-old Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who was also on the plane. and detained in Minsk.

A video of Protasevich was released to Belarusian state media on Monday evening. In the disturbing video, which his supporters and family say appears to be a forced confession made under duress and possibly as a result of physical violence, Protasevich says he is being treated well in a Minsk detention center.

“I am in SIZO [a pre-trial detention center] No. 1 in Minsk, ”he says in Russian. “I can declare that I have no health problems, including with my heart and with any other organ. The officers treat me with the utmost accuracy and in accordance with the law. I continue to cooperate with the investigation and confess to organizing mass riots in the city of Minsk.

Protasevich faces severe prison terms for helping to organize the protests against Lukashenko. He could even be sentenced to death if convicted of terrorism. Belarus is the last country in Europe to carry out executions.

Belarusian opposition leader Tikhanovskaya said the video showed Protasevich had been beaten.

“He says he’s being treated legally, but he’s clearly beaten and under pressure,” she said. “There is no doubt that he can be tortured.”

Tikhanovskaya said Protasevich had been taken hostage and was now among dozens of political prisoners in Belarus. Tikhanovskaya’s husband, anti-corruption blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, is among those detained, allegedly for his political activities, including seeking to run against Lukashenko in the presidential elections. After her husband was jailed, Tikhanovskaya jumped in and garnered a surprising level of support.

Tikhanovskaya said she had spoken with US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and EU leaders and urged them to put more pressure on Lukashenko. G7 leaders plan to invite him to a meeting in Britain in June where they could put Belarus at the top of the agenda.

“Let me stress: the suspension of flights over Belarus does not solve the real problem,” Tikhanovskaya said in his call for tougher sanctions and more support for the Belarusian opposition. “The problem is the terrorist regime that rigged elections last year, routinely violates the constitution and breaks international law. The Lukashenka regime is a threat to regional and European security. The only solution to this crisis is to conduct free and fair elections and democratic reforms. “

Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since he was first elected in 1994, turning the country of 9.5 million people into what many see as a Soviet-style dictatorship.


Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.



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