EU imposes sanctions on Belarus over 'hijacked' Ryanair flight

The blogger arrested by Belarus was shown on state TV Monday.

European countries have moved to sanction Belarus and ban its state airline from flying to Europe as they sought to punish President Alexander Lukashenko's regime for forcing a Ryanair passenger flight to land in the country so it could arrest a leading dissident onboard.

The international outcry has continued to grow over Sunday's incident, in which Belarus allegedly used a false bomb threat to divert the airliner to its capital, Minsk, in order to arrest Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old Belarusian blogger who played a key role in last year's mass protests against Lukashenko.

The United States and European countries have called the incident "air piracy" and "state-sponsored hijacking."

A number of airlines, including Austrian Airlines, Air France, Finnair and Singapore Airlines, have since announced that their flights are currently avoiding Belarus' airspace.

On Tuesday morning, European Council President Charles Michel, a former Belgian prime minister, posted an image on Twitter showing a slew of international flights navigating around Belarus. Michel hailed it as "Europe in action."

In a communique, the EU leaders demanded that Belarus immediately release Protasevich as well as his girlfriend, 23-year-old Russian citizen Sofia Sapega, who was arrested with him.

The move to limit flights from Belarus reflected the anger among European countries and people's belief that there must be consequences for Lukashenko, whose government has already face repeated volleys of sanctions.

Belarusian state television on Monday aired a video of Protasevich, seen for the first time since his arrest. In the video, he makes an apparent confession to the camera from a Minsk jail.

Looking exhausted and appearing to be under duress, Protasevich said he was healthy and confessed to charges of organizing mass disorder.

"My treatment from officers has been maximally correct and according to the law," Protasevich said in the video. "Also, I am continuing to cooperate with the investigation and to give a guilt confession to the charge of organizing mass disorder in the city of Minsk."

U.S. President Joe Biden condemned Protasevich's arrest and the video in which he appears as "shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press."

"I welcome the news that the European Union has called for targeted economic sanctions and other measures, and have asked my team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible, in close coordination with the European Union, other allies and partners, and international organizations," Biden said in a statement Monday.

The footage surfaced after independent media in Belarus suggested Protasevich was hospitalized with a heart problem. In the video, Protasevich denied that he was suffering from any health issues.

The plane carrying Protasevich and 120 other passengers was flying from Athens to Lithuania's capital, Vilnius, when it was suddenly diverted as it approached the Lithuanian border. Irish airline Ryanair said Belarusian air traffic controllers had informed the flight of an alleged security threat and instructed it to land in Minsk. A Belarusian Mig-29 fighter jet was also dispatched to escort the passenger flight.

On the ground, Belarusian agents took Protasevich away and detained Sepega. The rest of the passengers were then searched and held for hours as Belarusian officials continued the apparent charade of handling a bomb threat.

The plane was eventually allowed to depart, leaving behind Protasevich, Sepega and three other passengers, who European officials said they suspect were Belarusian security agents.

Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary condemned Belarus' actions, telling Irish radio station NewsTalk on Monday that "this was a case of state-sponsored hijacking."

Biden said the incident was "a direct affront to international norms" and called for Protasevich's release.

Meanwhile, Belarusian authorities have continued to claim they were responding to a real bomb threat and acting to protect the passengers.

On Monday, a senior official from the Belarusian Ministry of Transport and Communication sought to make the implausible claim that the hoax bomb threat had been sent by Hamas, the Palestinian militant group ruling the Gaza Strip. During a press conference, Artyom Sikorsky, director of the ministry's aviation department, read aloud in Russian a message he claimed had been sent by Hamas to the Minsk National Airport.

"We, the Soldiers of Hamas, demand Israel cease fire in the Gaza Strip," the message read by Sikorsky began, going on to demand the EU stop supporting Israel. He did not explain why Hamas would have sent the message only to Minsk airport or why it would demand a ceasefire days after one had already begun.

The Belarusian claim forced a denial from Hamas, with a spokesman saying it wasn't true and that the group doesn't use such tactics.

European leaders have dismissed Belarus' explanations. In fact, before Monday's summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called them "totally implausible."

Protasevich was a founder of the Telegram-based news channel NEXTA, which played a crucial role during the mass protests last year over Lukashenko’s reelection for a sixth term in office following a vote that the opposition rejected as rigged. The channel and its sister outlet, NEXTA Live, which together have more than 2 million subscribers on Telegram, helped coordinate the demonstrations and published videos of police clashing with protesters, which helped catalyze the peaceful uprising against Lukashenko.

Protasevich has since left NEXTA and now runs his own popular blog.

Last year, Belarusian authorities placed Protasevich on a terrorism watchlist and opened criminal cases against him on the mass disorder charges and also of inciting hatred -- offenses that carry 15 and 12 year prison sentences, respectively.

Protsevich's father, Dmitry, told Radio Free Europe on Monday that he feared his son might be tortured in Belarus. Protsevich's girlfriend, Sapega, is also still detained and her mother said she was now in Minsk's notorious Okrestina detention center. Sapega is a student at a university in Vilnius.

Protasevich's mother, Natalya, told NEXTA during a recent telephone interview that she was proud of him.

"I want to say just that my son -- he's a hero," she said, her voice wavering. "I really hope that the international community will stand up. It's very hard for me."

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said in a statement Monday that his department and the Federal Aviation Administration "are working closely with the State Department and other U.S. agencies to understand precisely what happened, and what actions may need to be taken to keep the flying public safe."

"We strongly condemn the actions the Belarusian government took to force the diversion of a Ryanair flight for the apparent purpose of arresting journalist Roman Pratasevich. A free press is essential to a functioning democracy, and the United States has called for his immediate release," Buttigieg added. "There must be an immediate, international, transparent, and credible investigation of this incident."

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