May 24, 2021 By Aamer Madhani, The Associated Press
President Joe Biden on Monday said the forced diversion by Belarus of a commercial passenger jet so it could arrest an opposition journalist was “a direct affront to international norms” and condemned the action as an “outrageous incident.”
Biden made the statement — and joined calls for an international investigation — as the European Union imposed sanctions against Belarus, including banning its airlines from using the airspace and airports in the 27-nation bloc in reaction to Sunday’s forced diversion of the Lithuania-bound Ryanair flight. The flight had originated from Greece, but was forced to land in Minsk.
Biden in his statement also expressed outrage over a video statement from Raman Pratasevich, who ran a popular messaging app that played a key role in helping organize massive protests against Belarus authoritarian leader President Alexander Lukashenko, that aired on Belarusian state television Monday night.
In the video clip, Pratasevich, 26, said his treatment in custody was “maximally correct and according to law.” He added that he was giving evidence to investigators about organizing mass disturbances.
“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,” Biden said in a statement. “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.”
Separately, the White House said that national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Monday spoke with Belarus opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Sullivan told the opposition leader that the U.S. “in coordination with the EU and other allies and partners, will hold the Lukashenka regime to account.”
Two U.S. senators urged the Biden administration to prohibit U.S. airlines from entering Belarus airspace because of the incident. “We must protect innocent passengers from despotic regimes and stand in solidarity with dissidents who are being targeted,” Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a joint statement.
The U.S. and the EU had already imposed sanctions against Belarusian officials amid months of protests, which were triggered by Lukashenko’s reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition rejected as rigged. More than 34,000 people have been arrested in Belarus since then, and thousands beaten.
“I applaud the courage and determination of Belarusians fighting for basic rights, including journalists like Raman Pratasevich and opposition leaders like Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and her husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski,” Biden said in a statement. “The United States will continue to stand with the people of Belarus in their struggle.”
Pratasevich was a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app’s Nexta channel, which played a prominent role in helping organize the anti-Lukashenko protests.