Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government is looking at further sanctions against Belarus in response to its arrest of a journalist over the weekend, just as the autocratic regime announced that it is closing its embassy in Ottawa.
On Sunday, Ryanair Flight 4978 from Athens to Vilnius Airport in Lithuania was ordered by a Belarusian fighter jet to divert and land in Minsk because of a bomb threat.
Once on the ground, Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich — who had been living in exile — and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were taken off the plane and arrested before the airliner was allowed to continue on its journey.
After his detention, Protasevich was seen in a brief video clip on Belarusian state television late Monday, confessing to some of the charges authorities have levelled against him.
"The behaviour of the Belarus regime is outrageous, illegal and completely unacceptable. This was a clear attack on democracy and on the freedom of the press. We condemn it and call for his immediate release," Trudeau said at his Tuesday morning media briefing.
"We also condemn this kind of dangerous interference in civil aviation. Canada has existing sanctions in place against Belarus and we'll be examining further options."
WATCH: Prime Minister Trudeau on sanctions against Belarus:
Trudeau said that Canada would work with allies and international institutions, including NATO, to put pressure on the regime and defend "journalists all around the globe."
Canada announced sanctions against 55 Belarusian officials last year after an election that Ottawa said was "marred by widespread irregularities" and a "systemic campaign of repression" and human rights violations under President Alexander Lukashenko.
The Belarusian embassy has posted a message on its official website saying that it will be formally closing its embassy in Ottawa on Sept. 1 and that it will stop processing consular documents on July 10.
"It is assumed that the consular functions of the Embassy of the Republic of Belarus in Canada would further be performed by the Consulate General of the Republic of Belarus in New York, United States of America," the embassy message said.
Transport Canada issues warning
Today, the Department of Transport issued a notice warning that due to "unusual excessive measures by Belarus," it was advising owners and operators of aircraft registered in Canada not to enter Belarusian airspace at any altitude.
"Canada will participate in the urgent meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization Council this week to shed light on the circumstances surrounding this abhorrent transgression," Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said in a statement.
"Canada will continue to work with its partners to ensure that the voices of the people of Belarus are heard and to pursue accountability for those responsible for undermining democracy, suppressing media freedom and committing human rights violations."
Garneau also called on Belarus to release anyone arbitrarily detained by the regime.
Belarusian crackdown continues
Since Sunday, airlines have rerouted flights to avoid the country's airspace and European Union leaders have directed officials to draft unspecified sanctions against Minsk, on top of a potential ban on Belarusian airlines from EU skies.
U.K. Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps told British airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace on Monday. He also suspended Belavia Belarusian Airlines' operating licence and banned it from operating flights to and from the U.K. without special permission.
Lukashenko has faced months of public protests triggered by his reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 election the opposition rejected as rigged. More than 35,000 people have been arrested since the protests began, with thousands more beaten by security forces.
Some say more sanctions will do little to alleviate the 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's political parties have been either jailed or forced to flee the country," said Ales Bialiatski, head of the Viasna human rights centre. "Belarus is facing an acute human rights crisis ... amid unprecedented political repressions."
Protasevich, who left Belarus in 2019, has become a top foe of Lukashenko. A popular messaging app he ran played a key role in helping to organize the protests, and authorities have tried to limit his influence.