May 26, 2021 By Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has condemned the Belarusian government’s “outrageous” seizure of a dissident journalist on board an intercepted airliner, saying Canada is weighing measures beyond current sanctions against the country.
Separately, the Belarusian Embassy in Ottawa is shutting its doors, stating in a website post it will suspend activity as of Sept. 1.
The decision was made by Minsk as part of “the optimization of the Belarusian diplomatic presence, which provides for both the closure and opening of a number of Belarusian diplomatic missions in different regions,” embassy charge d’affaires Evgeny Russak said in an email.
“That is all I can tell you.”
Trudeau said the arrest Sunday of Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich after a fighter jet forced down his flight in the country’s airspace amounts to a “clear attack on democracy and freedom of the press.”
“The behaviour of the Belarus regime is outrageous, illegal and completely unacceptable,” Trudeau said at a news conference Tuesday.
Ottawa will be “examining further options,” he added.
Canada announced sanctions against 55 Belarusian officials last year after an election that Global Affairs Canada said was “marred by widespread irregularities” amid a “systemic campaign of repression” and human rights violations under President Alexander Lukashenko, who has served in the office since its creation in 1994.
Since Sunday, airlines have rerouted flights to avoid the country’s airspace and European Union leaders have directed officials to draft unspecified sanctions against Minsk, on top of a potential ban on Belarusian airlines from EU skies.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has deemed the event “state hijacking” and Ireland and France have characterized it as piracy, part of a wave of international outrage.
The Belarusian Embassy first opened its doors in Ottawa in 1997, six years after the country’s independence.
It said Tuesday its consular section will freeze handling of documents in Canada such as visa applications starting July 10.
“Please be informed that the Government of the Republic of Belarus has taken (the) decision to close the Embassy in Canada,” a statement reads.
Consular functions will likely be carried out by the consulate in New York City, according to the statement.
Global Affairs spokesman John Babcock noted in an email that Ottawa maintains bilateral relations with states that do not have diplomatic missions on the ground in Canada, “including many countries with missions based in the United States.”
Canada does not have an embassy in Belarus, and its relations with the eastern European country are handled by diplomats in Warsaw, Poland.
Protasevich, 26, is part of a disparate group of Belarusian writers and activists campaigning in exile against the president’s 27 years in power.
He co-founded the Telegram channel Nexta, which has helped rally anti-Lukashenko demonstrations, landing him on a wanted list for terrorism. The state charged Protasevich in absentia last year with “organizing mass riots and group actions that grossly violate public order.”
Lukashenko was sworn in for a sixth term after a landslide election victory last August that sparked nationwide protests and global backlash over a vote that was widely seen as fraudulent.
He was travelling on Ryanair Flight 4978 from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sunday when Belarusian air traffic control prompted the plane to land in Minsk, the capital, due to an alleged security concern.
Jonathan Berkshire Miller, a director and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, called the incident almost “surreal, something you would imagine in one of these intelligence novels.”
“It seems pretty clear that this was a plot run by Belarusian intelligence basically to detain a journalist,” he said in an interview.
“Even for Belarus, this is quite a shocking turn to the more authoritarian side.”
Miller said the move saddles G7 countries with another all-caps agenda item ahead of their annual meeting in the United Kingdom starting June 11.
He said condemnation and further sanctions are welcome, but questioned whether influential bodies like the United Nations Security Council would take substantial action given the interests of permanent members Russia and China.
Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau and Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said in a statement that Canada will take part in an urgent meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization council this week “to shed light on the circumstances surrounding this abhorrent transgression.”
The Montreal-based agency’s council, which has the authority to investigate situations that may impede international air transport, has called a meeting for Thursday.