May 25 (UPI) — The European Union and the United States said Monday they will seek to impose punitive measures against the Lukashenko regime over its arrest of Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich after his commercial flight en route from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in Minsk on Sunday.
The European Council, which represents the governments of the European Union’s 27 member states, on Monday demanded that Protasevich — a blogger and prominent critic of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko — and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega — who was also detained by authorities in the incident — be immediately released.
“Roman Protasevich must be released immediately. Belarus is entirely responsible for his health and the health of his companion, Sofia Sapega,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU Commission, told reporters during a press conference
The commission president said the Council unanimously agreed to adopt measures to ban EU flights from Belarusian airspace and to deny Belarusian planes access to EU airports.
In an issued statement, the Council also called on the International Civil Aviation Organization “to urgently investigate this unprecedented and unacceptable incident” and for all EU air carriers “to avoid overflight of Belarus.”
“We will not tolerate that they play Russian roulette with the lives of innocent civilians,” EU Council President Charles Michel said.
Von der Leyen said new sanctions against Belarus would be coming soon, adding that companies and entities financing the regime will also be targeted.
“This is an attack on democracy. This is an attack on the freedom of expression. And this is an attack on European sovereignty,” she said. “And this outrageous behavior needs a strong answer, therefore the European Council decided that there will be additional sanctions on individuals that are involved in the hijacking.”
Concerning a more than $3.6 billion investment and economic package earmarked for Belarus, she said it will remain on hold until Minsk turns to democracy.
Earlier sanctions against Belarus were imposed by the EU after the country’s 2020 presidential election, in which Lukashenko won a sixth term despite widespread international condemnation of the contest being neither fair nor free.
Existing EU sanctions include a ban on travel to the EU and an asset freeze for 88 individuals, including Lukashenko. EU citizens and entities are forbidden from making funds available to those on the list, either directly or indirectly.
The results of the EU meeting came as a video apparently shot by authorities and posted to Twitter by independent Belarusian journalists shows Protasevich sitting at a desk wearing a dark hoodie with his hands folded tightly in front of him, confessing to organizing mass protests.
Protasevich says in the clip he is in good health at a pre-trial detention facility and admits helping to lead large-scale anti-government protests in Minsk last year, Britain’s Sky News reported.
The video was first circulated on a pro-government channel of the Telegram app, according to the independent Belarusian journalism organization MediaZone.
U.S. President Joe Biden late Monday condemned Protasevich’s arrest and the video.
“This outrageous incident and the video Mr. Protasevich appears to have made under duress are shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press,” the president said in a statement.
He said he welcomes news of the EU’s call for targeted economic sanctions and has directed his administration “to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible” in conjunction with the union and other allies.
“The United States will continue to stand with the people of Belarus in their struggle,” he said.
The United States has also repeatedly sanctioned Belarus following the August election and for the regime’s brutal crackdown on subsequent mass demonstrations during which thousands of arrests were made.
The Lukashenko regime forced a Ryanair flight en route from Athens to Vilnus to land within its borders Sunday and arrested Protasevich on board, inciting worldwide anger and accusations of committing terrorism by “hijacking” a civilian plane.
Belarusian aviation authorities said the flight was diverted to Minsk due to a reported bomb threat — an explanation roundly denounced by Western leaders.
The Ireland-based Ryanair issued a statement Monday accusing Belarus of committing “aviation piracy.”
The U.N. aviation body the ICAO has condemned the downing of Ryanair Flight FR4978, and said Monday it has called for an urgent meeting of its council’s 36 diplomatic representatives on Thursday.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has also called for a full and transparent investigation into the incident, according to a statement from his office.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy instructed his government to terminate direct flight between his country and Belarus as well as close Minsk’s airspace to Kiev planes.
Protasevich has been charged with organizing mass rights, being active in groups that grossly violate public order and incitement to social discord, according to a joint statement of various Belarusian rights groups published by the Minsk-based Viasna Human Rights Center on Monday.
He was also included in a national database of terrorists and put on an international watch list, it said.
The groups said his charges are “nothing but persecution for criticizing the current government.
Protasevich’s activity “is not but the peaceful exercise of the freedom’s guaranteed by both the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus and international human rights law, the freedom to seek and disseminate information and to express one’s opinion, among others,” they said.
In the United States, Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Duck Durbin, D-Ill., earlier sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to prohibit all U.S. airlines from entering Belarusian airspace.
“We must protect innocent passengers from despotic regimes and stand in solidarity with dissidents who are being targeted,” the pair said.