President Biden backs Belarus sanctions and condemns forced plane landing

Biden calls diversion of Ryanair flight from Vilnius to Minsk ‘outrageous’ after dissident journalist onboard is arrested

US President Joe Biden speaks to journalists at the White House. Reuters
US President Joe Biden speaks to journalists at the White House. Reuters

US President Joe Biden slammed Belarus on Monday for the “outrageous” act of forcing a flight from Greece to Lithuania to land in Minsk so a dissident journalist onboard could be arrested.

Roman Pratasevich, 26, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, were detained after the flight arrived in the Belarusian capital on Sunday.

“This outrageous incident and the video Mr Pratasevich appears to have made under duress are shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press,” Mr Biden said, using an alternative spelling of the activist’s name, after Belarusian TV broadcast video of Protasevich “confessing” to charges of organising mass unrest.

“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,” Mr Biden said.

Belarus’s strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko sparked international outrage by sending a fighter jet to intercept the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying Protasevich and his partner, who is Russian.

EU leaders agreed on Monday to cut air links with Belarus. The bloc said it would adopt further “targeted economic sanctions” against Belarusian authorities, in addition to the 88 regime figures and seven companies already on a blacklist over a crackdown on opposition.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Monday urged Mr Biden to direct the Federal Aviation Administration to prohibit US aircraft from entering Belarus air space after the Ryanair flight’s diversion.

“In an effort to keep passengers and crew safe, we urge you to prohibit all US airlines from entering Belarusian airspace, and encourage our allies and partners to do the same,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, wrote in a letter to Mr Biden.

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

“The United States joins countries around the world in calling for his release, as well as for the release of the hundreds of political prisoners who are being unjustly detained by the Lukashenka regime,” Mr Biden said.

The White House added that National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had spoken to exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, to convey “the United States’ strong support for the demands of the Belarusian people for democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms”.

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spoke to Ms Tsikhanouskaya on Monday.

“Mr Sullivan made clear that the United States, in co-ordination with the EU and other allies and partners, will hold the Lukashenko regime to account,” NSC spokeswoman Emily Horne said in a statement.

Updated: May 25, 2021 09:10 AM

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