Airlines shun Belarus, opposition leader says journalist tortured

By Matthias Williams and Andrius Sytas

KYIV/VILNIUS (Reuters) - Airlines shunned Belarus's air space on Tuesday and Belarusian planes could soon be banned from Europe, potentially isolating the land-locked country apart from its border with Russia after it forced down a jetliner and arrested a dissident journalist.

A video released overnight showed 26-year-old Roman Protasevich confessing to having organised anti-government demonstrations. On Sunday he was pulled off the passenger plane that was forced to land in the Belarusian capital Minsk.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the video made for distressing viewing and exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said that the video left no doubt that Protasevich had been tortured.

"He said that he was treated lawfully, but he's clearly beaten and under pressure. There is no doubt that he was tortured. He was taken hostage," she told a news conference in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.

Belarus has not commented on the torture allegation but has consistently denied abusing detainees.

Protasevich and a 23-year-old student travelling with him were arrested after their Ryanair flight was escorted by a Belarusian warplane while flying from Greece to Lithuania.

Western powers have widely condemned the incident, which NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg described on Tuesday as a "state hijacking".

Belarusian state media have reported that President Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered the flight to be intercepted. Belarus says it was responding to a bomb scare that later proved to be a false alarm. The U.N. agency ICAO has said the incident may have violated the foundational treaty governing international civil aviation, the 1944 Chicago Convention.

At least three other people disembarked the flight in Minsk, assumed by Western countries to have been spies who had helped coordinate an operation to capture Protasevich.

One Lithuanian official told Reuters that the three passengers who disembarked included two Belarusian citizens and one Greek citizen. Belarusian state TV on Monday broadcast interviews with the trio.

European Union leaders at a summit on Monday called for airlines based in the 27-member bloc to halt flights over Belarusian air space, which is along a major corridor connecting Europe and Asia and earns hard currency from overflight rights.

Lufthansa, KLM, SAS, Air France, LOT and Singapore Airlines were among carriers that announced they would stop flying over Belarus.

The EU leaders also directed officials to draw up unspecified new sanctions against Belarus, and to work out a way to ban Belarusian airlines from the bloc's skies.

If all such measures are fully implemented, flights may soon be able to reach Belarus only by passing over its eastern border with its close ally Russia.

"If we let this go, tomorrow Alexander Lukashenko will go further and do something even more arrogant, more cruel," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a statement.


Lukashenko, whose security services crushed months of pro-democracy demonstrations last year after an election opponents said was rigged, has so far shrugged off Western sanctions, which mostly consist of blacklists barring various officials from travelling or doing business in the United States and EU.

Politicians in the West have called for tougher measures that might isolate the country from the international financial system or bar its exports. But they have failed to influence the behaviour of Lukashenko, who enjoys unwavering financial and security support from Russia, which considers the Belarusian frontier with NATO its first line of defence.

Russia has said it is still too early to comment on the Ryanair incident, while accusing Western countries of hypocrisy and noting that a Bolivian presidential plane was diverted to Austria in 2013 after reports it was carrying U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden.

Moscow has also denied suggestions by Western politicians that it may have assisted its ally Belarus in the operation.

During Lukashenko's crackdown on dissent since last August's presidential election, nearly all opposition figures have been driven into exile or jailed, many on charges of organising demonstrations, which the government describes as terrorism. Lukashenko has denied electoral fraud.

In the video released overnight, Protasevich can be seen seated at a desk in a dark hooded sweatshirt.

"I can state that I don't have any health issues, including diseases of the heart or any other organs. Police officers are treating me properly and according to the law," he says. "Also, I now continue to cooperate with the investigation and have confessed to organising mass protests in Minsk."

A number of his allies swiftly wrote on social media that the video was evidence that he was under coercion.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus, Writing by Peter Graff, Editing by Timothy Heritage)