The EU has agreed to ramp up sanctions against Belarus, following the forced landing of a plane flying over its territory.

European leaders have called for a ban on Belarusian airlines flying over EU territory and are urging EU-based airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace.

These moves would be a huge financial blow to Belarus.

What sanctions against Belarus were already in place?

The EU first introduced restrictive measures against Belarus in 2004, following the disappearance of two opposition politicians, a journalist and a businessman several years earlier. These included an arms embargo and a ban on “the export of goods linked to internal repression”.

The EU imposed more sanctions against Belarus on 1 October 2020, in response to the “brutality of the Belarusian authorities and in support of the democratic rights of the Belarusian people”.

These restrictions – a travel ban and asset freeze against individuals associated with the government of Alexander Lukashenko – have since been expanded to include 88 individuals and seven organisations.

Those on the list are forbidden from entering or transiting through EU territories and their assets in the EU are frozen. In addition, EU citizens and companies are forbidden from making funds available to any individual and company on the list.

What other new measures has the EU adopted?

On Monday, the EU agreed to adopt even more targeted economic sanctions. The European Council will now draw up a list of “persons and entities” of interest, which will be considered at a later date.

The bloc has also called on the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to investigate Belarus’ decision to divert the Ryanair flight to Minsk. The ICAO is the UN body overseeing international aviation standards.

Do other countries have sanctions against Belarus?

The UK mirrors current EU sanctions.

Foreign affairs select committee chairman Tom Tugendhat has called for economic sanctions against Belarus including closing of the Yamal gas pipeline. This runs from Siberia in Russia, through Belarus and Poland to Germany.

The US also imposed travel restrictions and targeted financial sanctions on nine state-owned entities and 16 individuals, including President Lukashenko. First imposed in 2006, these were tightened in 2008.

In 2015, after President Lukashenko released six political prisoners, Washington suspended sanctions on state-owned companies and in 2019 the two countries announced they would exchange ambassadors.

However, in October 2020, following the 9 August presidential election and subsequent crackdown on opposition protests, the US expanded the sanctions to include 24 people.

International anger has grown over the detention of an opposition Belarusian journalist, after the Ryanair plane he was travelling on was forced to land.

Here’s what we know so far about the arrest of Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend.

Why did the plane land in Belarus?

Ryanair flight FR4978 was travelling from the Greek capital, Athens, to Vilnius in Lithuania on Sunday afternoon.

Passengers said the journey had been calm and the plane had begun its gradual descent to Vilnius when it made an abrupt change of course.

  • What happens with a military jet interception?
  • Fliers describe panic on diverted Ryanair plane

According to a transcript released by the Belarusian transport ministry, air traffic controllers told the pilot at 09:30 GMT “you have bomb on board and it can be activated over Vilnius”. Even though the plane was closer to Vilnius than the Belarus capital the pilot was told to divert to Minsk. At 09:47 the pilot declared a emergency.

An earlier transcript broadcast by Belarus TV had made it look as though the crew had asked to land in Minsk.

The plane then landed at 10:16 GMT (13:16 local time). A military MiG jet escorted the plane to the airport.

Leading opposition figure Pavel Latushko alleged Belarus had threatened to shoot down the plane. Exiled Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said on Monday that she had been on the same flight a week earlier.

When the plane’s 126 passengers disembarked, police arrested Mr Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.

Belarus later claimed the flight had been diverted because of a bomb threat from Hamas, but the Palestinian militant group denied any involvement.

German leader Chancellor Angela Merkel described the Belarusian claim as “completely implausible”.

What do we know about Protasevich and his girlfriend?

Mr Protasevich is a former editor of Nexta, a dissident media operation with a popular Telegram messenger channel. He left Belarus in 2019 to live in exile in Lithuania. Nexta became a significant channel for protesters challenging the August 2020 presidential election, widely condemned as rigged.

  • Belarus plane: Who is dissident Roman Protasevich?

After the Ryanair plane landed on Sunday, witnesses said Mr Protasevich was “super-scared”. Nexta’s editor tweeted that according to the journalist’s mother Roman Protasevich he was suffering from heart disease.

But in a video clip released on Monday, Mr Protasevich said he was in good health and appeared to confess to crimes he had been charged with by the Belarusian state.

Activists, including the country’s main opposition leader, said they believed Mr Protasevich had spoken under duress. Mr Protasevich’s father has told the BBC he fears his son may be tortured.

Ms Sapega’s mother told the BBC that the 23-year-old had been taken to a Minsk jail, adding that the last word she managed to write on her WhatsApp messaging account was “Mummy”.

Her mother said the couple had been in Greece on holiday.

Who else did not return to the plane?

Other than Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, it is thought that at least three other passengers remained in Belarus.

Belarus TV rejected as “sick fantasies and fiction” reports that several intelligence agents were on the plane. Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary suggested KGB agents may have been on board, a point backed up by Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney.

But Greek media have listed three names of passengers said to have remained in Minsk, and they have been reported by Belarus state TV too. Iason Zisis, said to be a doctoral researcher at Eindhoven University, told Belarus 1TV he was visiting his wife in Minsk so it made sense to disembark. Belarus TV named another passenger, Alexandra Stabredova, who said she asked to stay in Minsk. Sergei Kulakov said his final destination was the city of Vitebsk in northern Belarus.

Russia says Ms Sapega was the only Russian to remain in Minsk.

What penalty does Protasevich face?

The journalist faces charges of organising mass unrest after covering the events of the 2020 presidential election from abroad. The offence carries a possible jail term of up to 15 years. However Protasevich tweeted a KGB list of terrorists last year, adding that he had been placed on it alongside Islamic State jihadists.

When the plane landed in Minsk, Mr Protasevich reportedly told a fellow passenger: “A death penalty awaits me here.” According to some reports, terrorism offences carry the death penalty in Belarus.

Belarus is the only country in Europe and the former Soviet Union that still passes and carries out death sentences. Although no prisoners were executed last year, two were executed in 2019, according to Amnesty International.

Journalists have been arrested and independent media targeted in recent months. On Tuesday, Belarus sentenced seven activists – including senior opposition figure Pavel Severinets – to between four and seven years for their part in last year’s protests.

Another political activist jailed over the unrest, 50-year-old Vitold Ashurok, died of cardiac arrest at a penal colony in the east of the country last week.

Earlier this year, media freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged the UN to investigate the “persecution of journalists” in its investigation into the Belarusian government’s post-election crackdown, after two reporters said they were tortured in detention.

What has Ryanair said?

In its initial statement after Flight FR4978 arrived in Lithuania following a seven-hour delay on the ground in Minsk, the airline said the plane had been cleared for take-off together with passengers and crew. No mention was made of the arrested Belarusian journalist or his girlfriend. That statement was changed the next day to condemn an act of “aviation piracy”.

  • Europe airlines redirect flights away from Belarus
  • What action has the EU taken against Belarus?

Ryanair’s chief executive told Irish radio on Monday that it was very frightening for both crew and passengers.

The airline was not alone in failing to point out that two passengers had been forced off the plane. EU Transport Commissioner Adina Valean went on social media to hail “great news for everyone”, although she later appealed for Protasevich’s release.

Leave a Reply