Airlines re-route to avoid Belarus as opposition claims detained journalist likely tortured

Airlines re-routed flights to avoid Belarus's airspace on Tuesday and Belarusian planes faced a possible ban from Europe, as international outrage mounted over Minsk forcing down a jetliner and arresting a dissident journalist on board.

A video released overnight showed 26-year-old Roman Protasevich - who was pulled off the Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania in the Belarus capital on Sunday - confessing to having organised anti-government demonstrations.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the video was "concerning" and described the forced landing for the passenger jet as "an unprecedented and unacceptable act". Her foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said Belarusian President Alexander Lukasahenko must pay a "bitter price" for detaining Protasevich.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called the incident "state hijacking", and France and Ireland have described it as piracy.

In response to Minsk's actions, the European air traffic control agency, Eurocontrol, recommended that EU and British carriers that fly over Belarus should re-route via the Baltic states. 

Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said the footage showed Protasevich had been tortured.

Roman Protasevich.
Roman Protasevich. Photo credit: Getty Images.

"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 did not immediately comment on the torture allegation but has consistently denied abusing detainees.

Rights groups have documented hundreds of cases of what they describe as abuse and forced confessions during a crackdown on pro-democracy opponents of Lukashenko since last year.

"The events of Sunday are just another escalation in the strategy of blind repression led by the regime of Mr. Lukashenko," French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the French parliament.

Lukashenko's personal orders

Belarusian state media have reported that 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.

Protasevich and a 23-year-old woman travelling with him were arrested, and three other people disembarked the flight in Minsk, suspected by Western countries of being spies involved in the operation.

They were interviewed on Belarus state TV, which identified them as two Belarusians and a Greek. All three said they had asked to disembark because they planned to travel to Minsk anyway once the plane reached Vilnius.

European Union leaders at a summit on Monday called for airlines based in the 27-member bloc to halt flights over Belarusian airspace, 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.

Belgium's Charles Michel, who chairs EU summits, tweeted "Europe in action", with a picture of a flight tracker map of the continent showing no planes flying over Belarus.

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.

Belarus's neighbour, Ukraine, announced a ban on flights to or from Belarus, and on its own airlines using Belarusian airspace. That could mean that land-locked Belarus could soon be reached by air only over its eastern border with 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.

Videotaped 'confession'

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.

The Belarusian leader enjoys financial and security support from Russia, but Moscow denied suggestions by Western politicians that it may have assisted its ally in the operation.

Russia has also accused Western countries of hypocrisy, noting a Bolivian presidential plane was diverted to Austria in 2013 after reports it carried U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden.

Nearly all Belarusian opposition figures have been driven into exile or jailed, many on charges of organising demonstrations, which the government describes as terrorism.

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, adding that he had "confessed to organising mass protests in Minsk."

Polish deputy foreign minister Pawel Jablonski told Reuters by telephone that Protasevich was probably not seriously ill but, citing no evidence beyond what he had seen in the video, said the journalist had "probably" been beaten and tortured.