EU readies fresh sanctions against Belarus in wake of journalist's arrest

EU foreign ministers met in Lisbon on Thursday to determine new economic sanctions against Belarus after it arrested a dissident journalist aboard an intercepted passenger jet on the weekend.

United Nations aviation agency to probe diversion of passenger jet

Dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, seen here in a handout photo released on Monday, was arrested after his flight was forced to land in Belarus over the weekend. (The Associated Press)

EU foreign ministers met in Lisbon on Thursday to determine new economic sanctions against Belarus after it arrested a dissident journalist aboard an intercepted passenger jet on the weekend.

The incident caused international outrage against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko — whose disdain for democratic norms and human rights has made his country a pariah in the West. 

Belarusian state media reported that Lukashenko personally ordered the flight to be intercepted.

The latest plans for sanctions could target the country's lucrative potassium industry.

Separately, the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) held an urgent meeting on Thursday and agreed to investigate the diversion of the Ryanair passenger jet en route from Athens to Vilnius. 

The ICAO agreed to produce an interim report by June 25, a spokesman said. The council, based in Montreal, has limited powers of investigation.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, centre, poses during a group photo of EU foreign ministers who met to discuss Belarus in Lisbon on Thursday. (Armando Franca/The Associated Press)

In Poland on Thursday, the parents of detained journalist Roman Protasevich appealed at a news conference for help from the international community to free their son.

"I want you to hear my cry, the cry of my soul. So that you understand how difficult it is for us now and how much we are experiencing this situation," Natalia Protasevich, his mother, said. "I am begging you, help me free my son."

Also detained from the Ryanair flight was Protasevich's girlfriend Sofia Sapega. Her mother, Anna Dudich told the BBC she was in a state of disbelief.

"I'm ready to beg anyone for help, so my child's life isn't broken," Dudich said.

Lukashenko has defended his actions and accused the West of trying to "strangle" his country with sanctions.

The EU has already advised its airlines to avoid the ex-Soviet nation's airspace and barred Belarusian carriers from EU airports and airspace.

Natalia Protasevich pleaded for her son's release during a news conference in Warsaw on Thursday. (Czarek Sokolowski/The Associated Press)

The 27-country bloc has previously slammed Belarusian authorities with sanctions over the August election that handed Lukashenko a sixth term and that opposition groups have rejected as rigged, and over his ensuing crackdown on protests.

If the next batch of sanctions does not ease the crackdown on the opposition and democratic values, German Foreign minister Heiko Maas said the EU "will continue to look at what effects this has in Belarus, whether Lukashenko relents. If that isn't the case we have to assume that this will be just the beginning of a big and long spiral of sanctions."

Foreign ministers from the G7 group of leading industrialized nations also promised to take action. They pledged, in a statement, to "enhance our efforts, including through further sanctions as appropriate, to promote accountability for the actions of the Belarusian authorities."

The EU has tried on and off to encourage democratic reforms in Belarus, bring it closer to the bloc — and distance it from its main backer, Russia — but has not had much success.

Sanctions could backfire

Some say more sanctions will do little to alleviate the situation and will only push Belarus even closer to Russia, and reduce the influence of the EU and others.

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg acknowledged that it is a difficult balance.

"What we don't want to do is to drive the country in the arms of Russia," he said.

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said the EU was focused on the country's large potassium industry. The mineral is mainly used in the fertilizing industry.

"Belarus produces a great deal of potassium, is one of the world's biggest suppliers," he said. "I think it would hurt Lukashenko a great deal if we accomplished something there."

Lukashenko insists Belarusian authorities had a legitimate right to arrest Protasevich, who has become a top foe of the president, saying the 26-year-old journalist was working to foment a "bloody rebellion." 

Protasevich, who left Belarus in 2019, ran a popular messaging app that had a key role in helping organize huge protests in recent months that have put Lukashenko under unprecedented pressure at home in the wake of the August vote.

Since then, the crackdown has increased and more than 35,000 people have been arrested since the protests began, with thousands beaten.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday strongly condemned Belarus for its actions and said Canada was examining whether to tighten existing sanctions.

Last year, following a disputed presidential election in August, Canada slapped sanctions on 55 officials in Belarus.

Separately, the Belarus Embassy in Ottawa said it would shut down on Sept. 1, after 24 years of operating.

Flight schedules with canceled flights are shown on a display screen at the international airport outside Minsk, Belarus, on Thursday. (The Associated Press)

With files from Reuters