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Belarus opposition calls for more pressure after plane arrest

(Protests were held in Poland calling for the release of Roman Protasevich. Photo: AFP)

MINSK, (AFP):- Belarus’s opposition called Tuesday for more pressure on strongman Alexander Lukashenko as Europe moved to cut air links with the country over the extraordinary diversion of an airliner and arrest of a dissident on board.

The forced landing of the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius on Sunday and arrest of opposition journalist Roman Protasevich sparked an international outcry and calls for tough action against the longtime Belarusian leader.

European Union leaders took a first step on Monday, agreeing at a summit to ban Belarusian airlines from the bloc and calling on EU-based carriers not to fly over its airspace.

Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya urged the international community to go further in isolating the regime.

In a call with US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Tikhanovskaya asked the United States to “isolate the regime and pressure it through sanctions”, she said on Twitter.

In a separate post on her Telegram channel, Tikhanovskaya, who lives in Lithuania, said she asked for the opposition to be invited to next month’s G7 summit in Britain.

“The situation with the hijacking of the plane cannot be considered separately from other repressions and flagrant violations of human rights in Belarus,” she said.

EU leaders on Monday warned they would adopt further “targeted economic sanctions” against the Belarusian authorities to add to the 88 regime figures and seven companies already on a blacklist over a crackdown on opposition.

The UN rights office also demanded the immediate release of Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, who was also arrested.

– Video ‘confession’ –

Lukashenko and his allies are already under a series of Western sanctions over a brutal crackdown on opposition protests that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term in August last year.

Protasevich, 26, was a co-founder of the Nexta Telegram channel, which helped organise the protests that were the biggest challenge to Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.

He had been living between Poland and Lithuania.

Belarusian state television late on Monday broadcast a 30-second video of Protasevich confirming that he was in prison in Minsk and “confessing” to charges of organising mass unrest.

The footage showed Protasevich — who could face 15 years in jail — with dark markings visible on his forehead, saying he was being treated “according to the law”.

His allies say the video was made under pressure from authorities, with Tikhanovskaya saying there was “no doubt that Roman was being tortured in prison”.

US President Joe Biden slammed the forced diversion of the plane and arrest of Protasevich as “a direct affront to international norms” and said the video appeared to have been made “under duress”.

“I welcome the news that the European Union has called for targeted economic sanctions and other measures, and have asked my team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible,” Biden said in a White House statement.

– ‘Not his words’ –

Protasevich’s father Dmitry Protasevich told AFP in Poland that he had not been able to contact his son since Saturday and that he did not appear himself in the video.

“It’s clear that he was physically harmed because you can see signs of a beating on his face,” he said.

“He would never speak like that. Those were not his words… he was reading something out that he was told to read out.”

Minsk said it had reacted to secure the flight after receiving a bomb threat, supposedly from Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, but European leaders dismissed the claim as implausible.

Lukashenko — who scrambled a Belarusian fighter jet to intercept the Ryanair flight — has remained defiant in the face of sanctions with help from his main backer Russia.

Moscow has dismissed the outrage in the West, saying Belarus was acting reasonably and within the law when the plane was diverted.

Air France, Finnair and Singapore Airlines on Tuesday became the latest carriers to suspend flights over Belarus, following Scandinavian airline SAS, Germany’s Lufthansa and Latvia-based regional airline Air Baltic.

– More activists jailed –

Neighbouring Ukraine has also said it would halt direct flights between the two countries and over Belarus.

The EU has demanded a probe by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a UN agency, which is to meet on Thursday.

Last year’s protests gripped the country for months, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to denounce Lukashenko’s rule.

The 66-year-old leader has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for over two decades and responded to the demonstrations with a violent crackdown, detaining thousands, many of whom reported torture and abuse in custody.

Many protest leaders — including Tikhanovskaya who claimed victory in the August vote — fled the country and the demonstrations have dwindled.

Authorities have in recent months imposed a series of jail sentences on organisers, participants and journalists over the protests.

Seven activists, including senior opposition figure Pavel Severinets, were sentenced on Tuesday to jail terms of four to seven years after being found guilty of taking part in “mass unrest”.

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