President Joe Biden on Monday lambasted Belarus’ sudden grounding of a commercial flight and subsequent arrest of onboard dissident journalist Roman Pratasevich as “a direct affront to international norms.”
“The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms both the diversion of the plane and the subsequent removal and arrest of Mr. Pratasevich,” Biden said in a statement following the release of a new video with an appearance by Pratasevich that his supporters believe was coerced. “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.”
Pratasevich was arrested in Belarus after President Alexander Lukashenko ordered a fighter jet to escort his Ryanair plane to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, according to Pull Pervogo, Belarusian state broadcaster. Ryanair Flight 4978, on which Pratasevich was a passenger, was about to begin its descent to Vilnius in Lithuania on Sunday when it suddenly changed direction after a “security alert,” turning sharply east and descending toward Minsk.
Pratasevich, in exile and a vocal critic of Lukashenko’s regime, was detained at Minsk airport, the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs said Sunday. Whether that security alert was a fabrication by the Belarusian authorities is now at the heart of an incident that has sparked widespread international condemnation and raised serious questions about safety in the skies.
The Belarusian version of events has been met with widespread disbelief and condemnation among the international community, despite an elaborate show of fire trucks when the plane landed, as well as extensive baggage checks. Nothing untoward was found, according to Ryanair. Some governments have described the incident as a state-sanctioned hijacking.
Moments after Biden’s statement condemning the Lukashenko regime was released, the National Security Council released a readout of a call earlier Monday between national security adviser Jake Sullivan and democratic opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya of Belarus.
“Mr. Sullivan conveyed the United States’ strong support for the demands of the Belarusian people for democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms,” and praised the courage of Tsikhanouskaya and others “who languish in Belarusian jails as political prisoners” of the Lukashenko regime, according to a readout of the call.
“Mr. Sullivan strongly condemned the brazen and dangerous grounding” of the flight as well as Pratasevich’s removal, the readout continued, reiterating Sullivan’s call for Pratasevich’s release “as well as the need for free and fair elections under (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) observation to resolve the current crisis.”
Pratasevich is the founder of the Telegram channel Nexta, which was broadly used to organize anti-government protests, and another similar channel critical of the government, both of which are classified as extremist in Belarus. He is also on a government wanted list for terrorism.
Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, was abruptly inaugurated into office for his sixth consecutive term last September following a disputed election that the European Union said was not legitimate. Amid mass protests in Belarus last summer, Lukashenko and the state security apparatus forcibly removed from the country or detained leading opposition figures.