President Joe Biden
said on Monday that Belarus
' forced divert of a Ryanair
passenger flight, followed by the removal and arrest of an opposition journalist
, is "outrageous" and "a direct affront to international norms."
The president stated that the United States
“condemns in the strongest possible terms” both the plane “hijacking
” and the arrest of Raman Pratasevich
, a 26-year-old journalist who was aboard the jetliner traveling from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, when it was forced to stop in Minsk, Belarus.
Biden's remarks come on the same day that European Union
leaders agreed to sanction Belarus, including barring the country's airlines
from using EU airspace. The leaders demanded that authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko
immediately release Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, and asked the International Civil Aviation Organization to investigate what happened.
“I join the many calls for an international investigation
to ascertain the full facts of the case,” Biden said, adding, “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 those responsible accountable, in close coordination with the European Union, other allies and partners, and interns.”
Ryanair stated that Belarusian flight controllers ordered the crew to land the plane in Minsk after informing them of a bomb threat against Flight FR4978 as it flew through Belarusian airspace on Sunday. A Belarusian fighter jet escorted the plane as directed by Lukashenko, and authorities removed Pratasevich and Sapega from the flight while refusing to say where the two would be held.
Passengers told The Associated Press
that Pratasevich was shocked when he realized the flight had been diverted to Minsk, and that he was afraid he would be killed for his activism. The Belarusian KGB placed Pratasevich on a list of people
suspected of being involved in terrorism in November, and a terrorism conviction carries the death penalty
Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary described the incident as "a case of state-sponsored hijacking... state-sponsored hijacking."
At the same time as Biden's statement, Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Marco Rubio
(R-Fla.) urged the president in a letter to direct the Federal Aviation Administration
to prohibit U.S. airlines from entering Belarusian airspace "in an effort to keep passengers and crew safe." The two senators helped pass a bipartisan resolution in August 2020 calling for a free, fair, and transparent Belarus.
On Monday, Belarusian state television
aired a short video clip of Pratasevich, who ran the popular messaging app Nexta, which played a significant role in organizing protests against Lukashenko. The video showed Pratasevich sitting at a table with his hands folded in front of him, speaking quickly, saying that he was in good health
and that his treatment in custody was “maximally corrrect.”
The regime's propaganda channels broadcast a video of detained Raman Pratasevich, claiming that he is being treated lawfully in the Minsk Detention Center No1. I demand the immediate release of Raman and all political prisoners. pic.twitter.com/zdolsbp6m5 — Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (@Tsihanouskaya) May 24, 2021
“This outrageous incident, and the video Mr. Pratasevich appears to have made under duress, are shameful assaults on both political dissent and press freedom
,” Biden said, adding that “the United States joins countries around the world in calling for his release, as well as the release of the hundreds of political prisoners who are being held unjustly by the Lukashenko regime.”
Lukashenko has aggressively ruled as the country's first and current president for nearly 27 years, since the Belarusian office of the presidency was established. Last year, Belarusian civilians took to the streets to protest an election
they say was rigged to extend Lukashenko's reign. Police
violently attacked protesters and arrested thousands, a crackdown that drew significant criticism.
U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan met with exiled Belarusian democratic opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya on Monday to condemn the incident and assure her that the US will join other allies in holding Lukashenko accountable, citing the Biden administration
's demand for Pratasevich's immediate release, as well as the release of all political prisoners in Belarus.
“For months, the Belarusian people have made their voices heard, demanding democracy
, respect for human rights
, and the preservation of fundamental freedoms,” Biden said. “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.