In a summit communique swiftly agreed in Brussels on Monday night, the EU’s 27 heads of state and government condemned the forced landing of flight FR4978 in Minsk and called for the immediate release of opposition blogger Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.
The statement came shortly after the release of a video in which Protasevich denied reports that he had suffered health problems since his arrest in the Belarusian capital and said that he was confessing to inciting mass riots, a charge that carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years. The video, which appeared to have been filmed by police, was Protasevich’s first appearance since his arrest.
Protasevich, who was dressed in a black hoodie and seated next to a pack of cigarettes, said: “I can declare that I have no problems with my health, either with my heart or with any other organs. [Police] officers are treating me absolutely correctly and according to the law. I’m currently continuing to cooperate with the investigation and am giving a confession to the organisation of mass arrests in the city of Minsk.”
The opposition journalist appeared to have bruising above his right eye. He has not previously said he planned to confess to the charges against him, and several journalists who know him have said they believe he is under duress.
Late on Monday, Joe Biden condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the operation to arrest Protasevich, calling it “a direct affront to international norms” and called for his release. He welcomed EU sanctions, adding that his team was assessing “appropriate options”.
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, earlier spoke to Belarusian democratic opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya about the “brazen and dangerous grounding” of Protasevich’s Ryanair flight and reassured her of US support for democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms in the country.
Sullivan has also “raised our strong concerns” about Belarus’s action with his Kremlin counterpart, according to the US White House press secretary, Jen Psaki.
Under the measures agreed by the EU leaders, a raft of economic sanctions will be applied against those involved in the arrests adding to those imposed months earlier on nearly 60 Belarusian officials, including president Alexander Lukashenko and his son Victor, relating to the crackdown on peaceful protests against last August’s allegedly rigged presidential election result.
The new sanctions will cover individuals involved in the hijacking, businesses that finance the Belarus regime and the aviation sector.
The EU’s heads of state and government also called on EU carriers to avoid Belarusian airspace and agreed “to adopt the necessary measures to ban overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines and prevent access to EU airports” in a major blow to the country’s national airline. European flights over the country’s airspace have already been suspended.
Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, said the actions of the Belarus authorities were “without precedent”, describing attempts by Lukashenko’s regime to explain away the forced landing as a response to a Hamas bomb threat as “totally uncredible.”
An EU official said leaders, who had been asked to leave phones outside for security reasons, had “approved the strong actions” proposed by European Council president Charles Michel and that “the text was endorsed very quickly”.
There was a “strong reaction because serious endangering of aviation safety and passengers on board by Belarusian authorities”, the source added.
Attention was also focusing on Monday evening on Russia’s role in the forced landing of flight FR4978 in Minsk as the UK’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, told the House of Commons it was unlikely to have been done without Kremlin approval.
Raab described the “reckless and dangerous” arrest of Protasevich and Sapega as “a shocking assault on civil aviation and an assault on international law” as the UK government announced the suspension of the operating permit of Belavia, the country’s national airline. The UK is also examining the case for applying sanctions.