EU slaps sanctions on Belarus after 'hijacking' of commercial aircraft

Belarusian airlines have been banned from European skies and European airlines have been asked not to fly over Belarus after a Ryanair flight was diverted to Minsk and a dissident journalist arrested.
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By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

25 May 2021

The European Union sanctions were imposed late on Monday after a Ryanair flight was diverted to Minsk on Sunday and a dissident journalist arrested.

Raman Pratasevich was on a flight from Greece to Lithuania which was rerouted over a supposed bomb threat. His partner, Sofia Sapega, was also detained by Belarusian security authorities.

At a summit in Brussels, EU leaders asked Member States to suspend operating permits for its national carrier Belavia and promised other sanctions.

Pratasevich, linked to the opposition Telegram news channel NEXTA, which is hostile to long-time Belarus leader Aliaksandr Lukashenka, was flying from Athens on a commercial flight bound for Vilnius, when the aircraft was forced to change direction and land in Minsk over an alleged security threat.

Pratasevich lives and works in Lithuania and NEXTA was on the shortlist for the Sakharov Prize awarded in 2020 by the European Parliament in honour of the opposition in Belarus.

“The forced landing of the passenger plane is an act of state terrorism. Targeted sanctions are a good first step, but the European Union must remain firm”

Ska Keller, Greens/EFA co-leader

On Tuesday, Parliament’s President David Sassoli, who took part in the summit, called for an “immediate and strong response”, saying, “this was a kidnapping where a commercial flight was forced to land in order to arrest a dissident.”

He told a news conference in Parliament, “This is unheard of and it needs an immediate response.”

Sassoli told reporters, “I call on everyone, including the Belarus authorities, to release Raman and his partner and send them back to where they want to go.”

The Italian said, “We must also carry out an investigation into this incident and impose targeted sanctions on those responsible in the regime. We must give a strong signal of support to Raman.”

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and her Council  counterpart Charles Michel both condemned the incident “in the strongest possible terms” at the EU summit, with Michel adding, “I call on Belarus authorities to immediately release the detained passenger and to fully guarantee his rights.”

The Greens/EFA group has requested a debate and resolution on the issue for the June plenary session, while the EPP has requested an “urgent debate” at the next meeting of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

“This was a kidnapping where a commercial flight was forced to land in order to arrest a dissident. This is unheard of and it needs an immediate response” David Sassoli, European Parliament President

On Tuesday, MEPs were united in their criticism of Belarus over the hijack.

Greens/EFA co-leader Ska Keller said, “The forced landing of the passenger plane is an act of state terrorism. Targeted sanctions are a good first step, but the European Union must remain firm.”

“Raman and Sofia and all other political prisoners must be released immediately. We Greens/EFA call for an international investigation, the suspension of all flights of EU airlines through Belarusian airspace, and for the Belarusian government to stop the harassment of independent media.”

“We condemn the fact that Belarus still has the inhumane death penalty and urge for it to be abolished immediately. We stand with those who stand up for democracy in Belarus.”

Further reaction came from joint ECR co-chair, Polish member Ryszard Legutko, who called for targeted sanctions against state-owned companies in Belarus, adding, “The fact that a flight between two EU countries was forced to stop under the pretext of a bomb threat is a serious interference with civil air traffic in Europe.”

“Such an incident is highly concerning and cannot be tolerated. The EU must show a strong and united response to this case of state terrorism. Belarus can no longer be our international partner in air transport.”

“The fact that a flight between two EU countries was forced to stop under the pretext of a bomb threat is a serious interference with civil air traffic in Europe” Ryszard Legutko, ECR co-chair

He went on, “It’s clear that all air connections to Belarus must be cut. Belarusian airspace is no longer safe. This also means no more flights to or from Belarus. We also call to close EU airspace for all Belarusian aircraft and we urge the International Civil Aviation Authority to strip Belarus of its membership.”

The flight was diverted not far from its destination in Lithuania and Lithuanian Renew Europe MEP Petras Auštrevičius said, “Such a terrorist-like act of Lukashenka’s regime, risking the lives of more than 170 passengers, EU citizens included, is an international crime and a continuation of repression against the Belarusian people.”

EPP member Sandra Kalniete said, “The hijacking of an EU flight by the Lukashenka regime is an outrageous violation of international law and an act of state-backed terrorism.”

“A line has been crossed. Our governments must act now and take bold decisions with regard to Lukashenka’s regime. Not only is the life of Raman Pratasevich at stake, but also the credibility of the whole of the EU. Those Member States governments obstructing joint EU action are acting as agents of the dictator.”

Meanwhile, MEPs from various political groups have called on the Council and Commission to start a full inquiry into the breaches of international aviation rules. This came in a strongly-worded letter led by Parliament’s media working group.

It read, “What happened yesterday is outrageous and the Council should take concrete action against the illegitimate regime of Aleksander Lukashenko. What we saw is state-sponsored terrorism: a hijack of a flight between an EU capital to another EU capital, so that a journalist and his partner are arrested.”

In another move on Tuesday, the coordinators' meeting of Transport Committee MEPs called for “the urgent need for action.” They also heard from the European Commission about the upcoming publication of the Air Safety List, a list of air carriers that are subject to an operating ban in the EU.

Committee member, Irish MEP Ciarán Cuffe, said, “Beyond the political implications, there are serious safety concerns, including unscheduled arrivals at airports. We cannot allow this incident to be repeated.”

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