World leaders warn of consequences for Belarus after flight diverted, journalist pulled from plane

Airlines shunned Belarus's airspace on Tuesday and Belarusian planes could soon be banned from Europe — potentially isolating the land-locked country apart from its border with Russia — after authorities forced down a jetliner and arrested a dissident journalist.

Roman Protasevich was pulled off a plane that was forced to land in MInsk on Sunday

Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich, detained when a Ryanair plane was forced to land in the capital of Minsk, is seen Monday in a pre-trial detention facility that he says is in Minsk. (Telegram@Zheltyeslivy/Reuters TV/Reuters)

Airlines shunned Belarus's airspace on Tuesday and Belarusian planes could soon be banned from Europe — potentially isolating the land-locked country apart from its border with Russia — after authorities forced down a jetliner and arrested a dissident journalist.

A video released overnight showed 26-year-old Roman Protasevich confessing to having organized anti-government demonstrations. On Sunday he was pulled off the Ryanair passenger plane that was forced to land in Minsk, the Belarusian capital.

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

"The behaviour of the Belarus regime is outrageous, illegal and completely unacceptable.... We also condemn this kind of dangerous interference in civil aviation," Trudeau told reporters.

"Canada has existing sanctions in place against Belarus and will be examining further options."

WATCH | Trudeau condemns Belarus for arrest of critic:

Trudeau condemns arrest of journalist critic in Belarus

1 year ago
Duration 1:56
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned Belarus on Tuesday, saying the forced landing of a plane in the country and arrest of a journalist on board was 'outrageous, illegal and completely unacceptable.'

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.

"This decision was made on the basis of an analysis of the practical impact [on] current bilateral contacts," acting ambassador Evgeny Russak said by email. Minsk wished to optimize its diplomatic presence, he said, but did not give details.

Confession video 'concerning'

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the video of Protasevich made for distressing viewing, while exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said the video left no doubt that Protasevich had been tortured.

"He said that he was treated lawfully, but he's clearly beaten and under pressure. There is no doubt that he was tortured. He was taken hostage," she told a news conference in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.

In a tweet, Johnson said Belarus's actions "will have consequences."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the video was "concerning" and described the forced landing of the passenger jet as "an unprecedented and unacceptable act." Her foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko must pay a "bitter price" for detaining Protasevich.

President Joe Biden was asked what the United States was considering in terms of a sanctions response as he left the White House on Tuesday.

"Well, that's in play. I don't want to speculate until we get it done," he said.

Belarus has not commented on the torture allegation but has consistently denied abusing detainees.

Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, 23, were arrested after their Ryanair flight was escorted by a Belarusian warplane while flying from Greece to Lithuania.

'State hijacking'

Western powers have widely condemned the incident, which NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg described on Tuesday as a "state hijacking."

Belarusian state media have reported that Lukashenko personally ordered the flight to be intercepted. Belarus says it was responding to a bomb scare that later proved to be a false alarm. The International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency, has said the incident may have violated the foundational treaty governing international civil aviation, the 1944 Chicago Convention.

At least three other people disembarked in Minsk, assumed by Western countries to have been spies who had helped co-ordinate an operation to capture Protasevich.

One Lithuanian official told Reuters that the three passengers who disembarked included two Belarusian citizens and one Greek citizen. Belarusian state TV on Monday broadcast interviews with the trio.

European Union leaders at a summit on Monday called for airlines based in the 27-member bloc to halt flights over Belarusian airspace, which is along a major corridor connecting Europe and Asia and earns hard currency from overflight rights. 

Lufthansa, KLM, SAS, Air France, LOT and Singapore Airlines were among carriers that announced they would stop flying over Belarus.

Belgium's Charles Michel, who chairs EU summits, tweeted, "Europe in action," with a picture of a flight tracker map of the continent showing no planes flying over Belarus.

The EU leaders also directed officials to draw up unspecified new sanctions against Belarus and to work out a way to ban Belarusian airlines from the bloc's skies.

If all such measures are fully implemented, flights may soon be able to reach Belarus only by passing over its eastern border with its close ally Russia.

"If we let this go, tomorrow Alexander Lukashenko will go further and do something even more arrogant, more cruel," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a statement.

Videotaped 'confession'

Lukashenko, whose security services crushed months of pro-democracy demonstrations last year after an election opponents said was rigged, has so far shrugged off Western sanctions, which mostly consist of blacklists barring various officials from travelling or doing business in the United States and EU.

Politicians in the West have called for tougher measures that might isolate the country from the international financial system or bar its exports. But they have failed to influence the behaviour of Lukashenko, who enjoys unwavering financial and security support from Russia, which considers the Belarusian frontier with NATO its first line of defence.

Protasevich is seen in this April 2017 photo as he appears for a court hearing in Minsk on accusations of participating in an unsanctioned protest. (Reuters)

Russia has said it is still too early to comment on the Ryanair incident, while accusing Western countries of hypocrisy and noting that a Bolivian presidential plane was diverted to Austria in 2013 after reports it was carrying U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden.

Moscow has also denied suggestions by Western politicians that it may have assisted its ally Belarus in the operation.

During Lukashenko's crackdown on dissent since last August's presidential election, nearly all opposition figures have been driven into exile or jailed, many on charges of organizing demonstrations, which the government describes as terrorism. Lukashenko has denied electoral fraud.

In the video released overnight, Protasevich can be seen seated at a desk in a dark hooded sweatshirt.

"I can state that I don't have any health issues, including diseases of the heart or any other organs. Police officers are treating me properly and according to the law," he said. "Also, I now continue to co-operate with the investigation and have confessed to organizing mass protests in Minsk."

A number of his allies swiftly wrote on social media that the video was evidence that he was under coercion.

Polish deputy foreign minister Pawel Jablonski told Reuters by telephone that Protasevich was probably not seriously ill but, citing no evidence beyond what he had seen in the video, said the journalist had "probably" been beaten and tortured.

Anna Dudich, the mother of Protasevich's girlfriend, told Reuters that her daughter, a student and a Russian citizen who is originally from Belarus, had steered clear of politics but that she feared for her health and safety in detention.

"My hopes are now probably based on a miracle and on the knowledge that my daughter is definitely not guilty of anything," Dudich said. "She simply showed up in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Russia's Foreign Affairs Ministry said Sapega may also face criminal charges.