Belarus' isolation grows after journalist's dramatic arrest

·5 min read

BRUSSELS (AP) — Belarus’ isolation deepened Tuesday as commercial planes avoided its airspace, the European Union worked up new sanctions, and a U.N. official said he was concerned for the welfare of an opposition journalist arrested in Minsk after being pulled off a plane that was diverted there in what the West called a state-sponsored hijacking.

The dramatic arrest has put a spotlight on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s iron-fisted rule and suppression of dissent — but it was not clear what effect ore sanctions or other measures would have.

After his detention, Raman Pratasevich was seen in a brief video clip shown on Belarusian state television late Monday, speaking rapidly to say that he was confessing to some of the charges authorities have leveled against him. The spokesperson for the U.N.’s human rights office, Rupert Colville, said Pratasevich's appearance was likely not voluntary and that he seemed to have bruising to his face, though it was difficult to tell from the footage.

The 26-year-old journalist and activist was arrested Sunday after Belarusian flight controllers ordered the Ryanair jetliner he was aboard to land, telling the crew that there was a bomb threat against the flight. A Belarusian fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane.

In an unusually swift response to the arrest and flight diversion Monday, EU leaders agreed to ban Belarusian airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc and impose sanctions on officials linked to the diversion.

They demanded Pratasevich's release and urged the International Civil Aviation Organization to start an investigation into the flight diversion, while recommending European carriers avoid Belarus' airspace. Polish carrier LOT and Baltic airlines have begun bypassing the country, while Air France, KLM, Lufthansa and others have all said they will follow suit.

Belarus has defended its actions and its Transport Ministry said Tuesday that it has invited international aviation, U.S. and EU authorities to investigate the flight’s diversion.

In the wake of the brazen move, the country's first post-Soviet leader urged the West to introduce even tougher sanctions.

“Belarus has become a ‘black hole’ of Europe with repressions reaching a catastrophic scale and its dictator scrambling fighter jets and threatening the entire world,” Stanislav Shushkevich told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “The West must understand that only increasing pressure and really tough sanctions could impact Lukashenko and limit repressions.”

EU Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen said the bloc will introduce additional sanctions that will target "businesses and economic entities that are financing this regime.”

“We know that in this country, the major state companies make the money. This is going to hit them and everything is targeted towards making them feel the sting,” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

Lukashenko has faced unprecedented pressure at home with months of protests triggered by his reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition rejected as rigged. But he has only doubled down on repression, and more than 35,000 people have been arrested since the protests began, and thousands beaten.

Some warn that more sanctions will do little to alleviate that situation and will only push Belarus even closer to its main sponsor and ally, Russia, and reduce the influence of the EU and others.

“Lukashenko will become an increasingly easy prey for the Kremlin,” said Alexander Klaskouski, an independent Minsk-based political analyst. “As a pariah country, Belarus will find it much more difficult to fend off the Kremlin demands for the introduction of a single currency, the deployment of air bases and access to lucrative Belarusian economic assets.”

Even as the West condemned Belarus, the crackdown continued Tuesday, when Pavel Seviarynets, the leader of the opposition Christian-Democratic Party, was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of organizing mass riots.

“Most leaders of Belarus’ political parties have been either jailed or forced to flee the country,” said Ales Bialiatski, head of the Viasna human rights center. “Belarus is facing an acute human rights crisis ... amid unprecedented political repressions.”

Pratasevich, who left Belarus in 2019, has become a top foe of Lukashenko with a popular messaging app he ran that played a key role in helping organize huge protests against the president, and authorities have increasingly tried to limit his influence.

The Telegram messaging app’s Nexta channel that he co-founded has been labeled “extremist” by the Belarusian authorities, and Stsiapan Putsila, an ally of figure who Nexta co-founder, told The AP on Tuesday that he and his colleagues have received “thousands of threats” in the past to blow up their office in the Polish capital.

Pratasevich, meanwhile, has been charged in absentia with staging mass riots and fanning social hatred. Those charges carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years, and some fear Pratasevich could face more serious charges, including some that carry the death penalty.

Colville, the U.N.’s human rights office spokesperson, said that Pratasevich’s brief appearance on Belarus state television Monday night “was not reassuring, given the apparent bruising to his face, and the strong likelihood that his appearance was not voluntary and his ‘confession’ to serious crimes was forced.”

He denounced the plane’s diversion as “abuse of state power” that deserves “the strongest condemnation.”

The main opposition candidate in the last election, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who left the country immediately after the vote under official pressure, said she urged the United States to move to suspend Belarus' membership in the International Civil Aviation Organization and Interpol.

Tsikhanouskaya also pushed for the G-7 group of leading industrialized countries to invite a Belarusian opposition delegation to its summit in London next month and thanked French President Emmanuel Macron for supporting her bid.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman, Max Blain, said, however, that "the invite list for G-7 is already set” and he wasn't aware of any request from the French president to invite the opposition.

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Karmanau reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Poland, Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Samuel Petrequin and Lorne Cook in Brussels, Jill Lawless in London and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.

Yuras Karmanau And Raf Casert, The Associated Press

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