Airlines re-route to avoid Belarus, opposition says journalist beaten

Brussels: Airlines re-routed flights to avoid Belarus’s airspace 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.

Western nations accused Belarus of hijacking and piracy over the interception of the Ryanair plane as it crossed the country on a flight from Greece to Lithuania.

A video released overnight showed 26-year-old Roman Protasevich – who was pulled from the passenger plane after Belarus scrambled a warplane to escort it to Minsk on May 23 – confessing to having organized anti-government demonstrations.

Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said the footage showed 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 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 Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko since last year.

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.

Belarusian authorities released a transcript of a conversation between the plane and an air traffic controller in which the pilot repeatedly questioned information about the threat before agreeing to land at Minsk.

Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, were arrested when the plane landed.

European Union leaders at a summit on May 24 had 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.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

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