Sanctions under discussion
EU leaders will discuss possible sanctions against President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime on Monday evening, the first day of a two-day summit in Brussels.
The arrest of the founder and editor of Nexta, a social media channel that reported on the mass protests that erupted last summer against Mr Lukashenko, is now expected to dominate discussions over dinner.
“This is another blatant attempt by Belarusian authorities to silence all voices of the opposition,” said a statement from Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat.
“We call for the immediate release of Mr. Pratasevich,” said Mr. Borrell, “An international investigation into this incident must be carried out to determine any violations of international aviation rules.”
“The EU will examine the consequences of this action, including taking action against those responsible,” Borrell said, referring to the prospect of the bloc imposing sanctions on Belarus.
The measures could include economic sanctions and targeted sanctions against officials, as well as the ban of the Belarusian national airline from EU airports.
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said those responsible for the “Ryanair hijacking must be punished”.
“The regime’s outrageous and illegal behavior in Belarus will have consequences,” she said.
Alexander De Croo, the Belgian Prime Minister, said that the European Council must send a “clear and unequivocal message”.
“We must consider sanctions, including the ban of Belavia [Belarus’ national airline] to land at EU airports, ”he tweeted.
Simon Coveney, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, told RTE broadcaster that he would have “no problem” in closing Belarusian airspace.
He said: “(The EU) must take clear decisions that send a very strong signal to a regime in Belarus which has no democratic legitimacy and behaves like a dictatorship, suppressing its own people, expelling foreign journalists, silencing civil society and human rights defenders. “
MEPs from the European People’s Party (EPP) called on EU leaders to take “bold” decisions at the summit.
They demanded a no-fly zone over Belarus, faster passage of the ongoing sanctions against Minks for last year’s rigged elections, and the release of the jailed journalist and his partner.
“This scandalous illegal incident must have serious consequences. No flights to Belarus, no flights from Belarus, no flights over Belarus. This must be the EU’s response, ”said MEP Marian-Jean Marinescu, spokesperson for the EPP group in charge of transport.
German and French officials and ministers also condemned the incident, which Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the UK’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said was “air piracy” and “kidnapping”.
Mr Raab will give more details on the UK’s response to Belarus following the arrest of the opposition activist.
The EU was already preparing a fourth round of sanctions against Belarus after rigged elections and the regime’s crackdown last year.
Along with the United States, Britain and Canada, the EU has already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on nearly 90 officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko.
EU sanctions require the unanimous support of the 27 EU member states.
Monday’s summit dinner should be too early for the measures to be prepared for approval, but leaders should strongly condemn the arrest and demand the release of Mr Pratasevich.
NATO ambassadors are due to discuss the forced landing on Tuesday.
Russia said on Monday it was shocked by the Western outcry over Belarus’s hijacking of a passenger plane carrying an opposition activist.
“We are shocked that the West is calling the incident in Belarusian airspace ‘shocking’,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Facebook, accusing Western countries of “kidnappings, forced landings and illegal arrests ”.
Journalist in exile
Roman Protasevich was born in 1995 in Minsk to a military family. He became involved in opposition politics as a teenager and was kicked out of high school after being arrested during a protest in 2011.
He briefly studied journalism and worked for several media outlets including Euro Radio and Radio Free Europe before joining Nexta, a Telegraph messaging app channel.
Nexta, a play on the Belarusian word for “someone” because its updates are anonymous, has earned a reputation for speed, accuracy and independence, but has drawn the wrath of the government of Alexander Lukashenko .
At the end of 2019, he fled to Poland after the arrest of a colleague. He was charged with several criminal cases in absentia.
He was responsible for the day-to-day running of the Telegram channel when protests erupted against the Lukashenko regime following contested elections in August 2020, and left Nexta in September of the same year.
In November 2020, Mr. Protasevich and Stepan Putilo, his co-founder of Nexta, were charged with terrorism and placed on the same register as suspected members of the Islamic State group.
On May 6 of this year, Mr. Lukashenko issued a decree stripping the father of Mr. Protasevich, who served for 29 years in the country’s armed forces, of his rank of lieutenant colonel in the reserves.
Mr Protasevich and his girlfriend, a 23-year-old Russian citizen who is currently studying in Lithuania, were arrested in Minsk after their flight from Athens to Vilnius was intercepted over Belarus on May 23.