LONDON - Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said Tuesday it is clear that Raman Pratasevich, the journalist arrested Sunday after the passenger jet he was traveling on was diverted and forced to land in Minsk, has been beaten in detention.
Pratasevich appeared in a video posted online Monday, apparently filmed by Belarusian security services. He confessed to organizing anti-government protests. His supporters say marks on his face show he has been beaten.
Speaking from Vilnius Tuesday, where she lives in exile, Tsikhanouskaya said that lawyers had not been allowed to see Pratasevich.
“I think many have already watched the video with imprisoned Raman. He said that that he is being treated lawfully but he is clearly beaten and under pressure. There is no doubt that he may be tortured,” Tsikhanouskaya said. “He was taken hostage like 421 political prisoners, and thousands of people who have not yet been recognized as political prisoners but are behind bars.”
The incident has been described as “state-sponsored hijacking” by Western leaders, and many European airlines are now avoiding Belarusian airspace, a key route from Europe to Asia.
Twenty-six-year old Pratasevich was detained Sunday, after the Ryanair Boeing 737 passenger jet he was traveling on was forced to land in Belarus as it flew over the country en route from Greece to Lithuania. There were 171 passengers and crew on board. Pratasevich was visiting Athens at the same time as Tsikhanouskaya, who met several Greek government officials.
Belarusian state media have reported that President Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered the flight to be intercepted. The United Nations’ aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has said the incident may have violated the foundational treaty governing international civil aviation, the 1944 Chicago Convention.
Pratasevich and his Russian companion Sofia Sapega were arrested on the ground in Minsk. At least three other passengers also disembarked the plane and are believed to be security agents who were tracking Pratasevich.
European Union leaders expressed outrage over the incident following a summit in Brussels Monday evening. Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission President, outlined the bloc’s initial response.
“This is an attack on freedom of expression and this is an attack on European sovereignty. 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 but this time also on businesses and economic entities that are financing this regime,” von der Leyen said at a press conference in Brussels Monday evening.
The former British ambassador to Belarus, Nigel Gould-Davies, welcomed the ratcheting up of sanctions against the Belarus government. “I think given the escalation of Belarus' outrageous activities, the point is now to correspondingly escalate the sanctions and move from a situation where we're just imposing restrictions on individuals to a broader approach to putting pressure on the regime,” Gould-Davies told the Associated Press.
“And that means, among other things, going after the financial flows, the various ways in which Belarusian state companies are dependent on access to Western finance and Western markets. These are the money flows that help sustain the regime,” he added.
The European Union urged airlines to re-route around Belarus. Lufthansa, KLM, SAS, Air France, LOT and Singapore Airlines were among carriers that announced they would stop flying over the country Tuesday. Belarusian airlines will also be banned from EU airspace and airports.
However, Europe has limited options in seeking to retaliate, says analyst Alex Titov of Queen’s University Belfast. “Ultimately, that’s not going to move Lukashenko, because he’s got his man now,” Titov told VOA. “The European Union in particular, but the United States as well, don’t really want to completely antagonize Belarus or lose it altogether and push it into Moscow’s arms.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg echoed the condemnation Tuesday. “The forced landing of a passenger flight by Belarus was dangerous and unacceptable,” Stoltenberg told reporters. “This is a state hijacking and demonstrates how the regime in Minsk attacks basic democratic rights and cracks down on freedom of expression and independent media. I welcome the additional measures agreed by the European Union. There must be an urgent international investigation. And journalist Pratasevich and his companion Sofia Sapega must be immediately released.”
Bill Browder, the financier and political activist who has campaigned for sanctions against human rights abusers in Russia and elsewhere, said it is critical that the West responds forcefully.
“I think it sends a horrific message to every enemy of every dictatorship around the world - that you can literally be plucked out of the sky no matter where you are. And it's unprecedented, this type of thing, you have an internal EU flight that was basically grounded with fighter jets by a dictator. And there has to be harsh and serious consequences,” Browder said Tuesday.
Pratasevich fled to Poland in 2019 and claimed political asylum. He ran the popular Nexta and Nexta Live channels on Telegram but recently switched to an alternative opposition social media platform.
Since the protests began in August 2020 after a disputed election, Belarusian authorities have arrested an estimated 35,000 people. There is widespread evidence of torture.
The operation to arrest Pratasevich was likely personally ordered by President Lukashenko, says analyst Alex Titov.
“The thing about the Belarusian protests is that there was very little structure and clear leaders and organization around them. So, the Telegram channel by two very young journalists in exile in Poland already suddenly became that sort of lynchpin seemingly, which was directing all the protests,” Titov said.
U.S. President Joe Biden has asked his advisers to come up with options to hold those responsible for the forced landing of the Ryanair plane to be held to account. The United Nations called for ‘a full, transparent and independent investigation.’