A defiant President Alexander Lukashenko on Wednesday (26 May) defended Belarus’s diversion of a European flight and arrest of a dissident on board, lashing out at critics at home and abroad.
In his first public statement since the Ryanair flight was diverted and opposition journalist and activist Roman Protasevich arrested on Sunday, Lukashenko dismissed the international outcry the incident provoked.
“I acted lawfully to protect our people,” Lukashenko said in an address to parliament.
The criticism was nothing more than another attempt by his opponents to undermine his rule, he said, accusing them of waging a “modern, hybrid war” against Belarus.
“Our ill-wishers at home and abroad have changed their methods of attacking the state,” Lukashenko said, accusing them of crossing “red lines” and “boundaries of common sense and human morality”.
“They have moved from organising riots to strangulation.”
Lukashenko — often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” — is facing some of the strongest international pressure of his nearly 27-year rule of ex-Soviet Belarus.
But he continues to enjoy solid support from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is hosting the Belarusian leader on Friday.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday there was no reason to disbelieve Lukashenko’s version of events.
The Belarus strongman and his allies are under a series of Western sanctions over a brutal crackdown on mass protests that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term last August.
European leaders are now accusing authorities in Minsk of essentially hijacking the passenger flight, and they agreed this week to cut air links with Belarus and told airliners to avoid the country’s airspace.
The Belarusian opposition has called for further and stronger measures, and the UN Security Council was set to meet behind closed doors later on Wednesday.
The Athens-to-Vilnius flight was diverted over a supposed bomb scare, with Lukashenko scrambling a MiG-29 fighter jet to accompany the aircraft.
Belarus has released a transcript of communications between Minsk air traffic control and the Ryanair flight, in which the crew was told “you have (a) bomb on board” and urged to land in Minsk.
Lukashenko on Wednesday denied that the fighter jet had forced the airliner to land, calling such claims an “absolute lie”.
He claimed that Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania had denied the Ryanair flight permission to land and that its only option had been to turn to Minsk.
Protasevich — the 26-year-old co-founder of opposition Telegram channel Nexta which coordinated last year’s protests against Lukashenko — and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested after the plane landed.
Protasevich, who had been living between Poland and Lithuania, appeared in a video on Monday in which he confessed to helping to organise mass unrest, a charge that could land him in jail for 15 years.
Sapega, a 23-year-old law student at the European Humanities University (EHU) in Lithuania, appeared in another video on Tuesday, saying she worked for a Telegram channel that disclosed information about Belarusian law enforcement.
Her lawyer said she had been remanded in pre-trial detention for two months and Russia confirmed she was being detained as a criminal suspect.
Belarus’s opposition says such videos are routinely recorded by security forces, with participants forced to make statements under duress.
‘They’re going to kill him’
Protasevich’s mother told AFP in Poland that she had not slept since he was arrested.
“I’m asking, I’m begging, I’m calling on the whole international community to save him,” Natalia Protasevich said, weeping.
“They’re going to kill him in there.”
His father Dmitry Protasevich said that his son’s lawyer was told that the journalist was not in his detention cell.
“We think that he may be in hospital,” he told AFP. “We believe his life and health could be in danger.”
EU leaders on Monday warned they would adopt further “targeted economic sanctions” against the Belarusian authorities to add to the 88 regime figures and seven companies on a blacklist.
Last year’s protests lasted for months, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to denounce Lukashenko, but were brutally quashed and thousands were detained. Several people died in the unrest, many reported torture and abuse in custody.
On Wednesday, dozens of people marched through the streets of Beryozovka east of Minsk for the funeral of Vitold Ashurok, 50, a well-known opposition activist who died Sunday from cardiac arrest in a penal colony in eastern Belarus.
Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled into exile after claiming victory in August’s election, spoke to the European Parliament via video link on Wednesday calling for a series of concrete measures, including a ban on new foreign investments and on Belarus’s main exports.
Diplomatic sources told AFP the UN Security Council would hold an informal meeting on Belarus on Wednesday but was unlikely to agree on a collective statement because of Russia’s support for Minsk.
NATO’s North Atlantic Council called for an “urgent” independent investigation, including by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).