Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called Belarus’s dramatic arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich “outrageous, illegal and completely unacceptable,” calling for his immediate release and saying Canada is considering further sanctions against the Eastern European country.
The Belarus actions amounted to a “clear attack on democracy and the freedom of the press,” Mr. Trudeau said. Canada has existing sanctions in place against Belarus and will be examining further options, he added.
Canada also warned Canadian air operators and owners of aircraft registered in the country to avoid Belarusian airspace because of safety and security concerns.
Mr. Trudeau’s comments Tuesday were made the same day Belarus announced it will close its embassy in Canada in September after 24 years. The embassy will wind down its operations over the summer and consular duties will be assumed by its U.S. embassy.
Mr. Protasevich was pulled off a Ryanair jetliner that was on its way to Lithuania from Greece on Sunday after Belarus scrambled a warplane to escort it to Minsk. A video released overnight showed the 26-year-old journalist confessing to having organized anti-government demonstrations.
On Monday, European Union leaders agreed to ban Belarusian airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc. They also imposed sanctions on officials linked to the diversion.
Belarus has defended its actions. Its Transport Ministry said Tuesday it has invited international aviation, U.S. and EU authorities to investigate the diversion.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed with Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson that the video of Mr. Protasevich was “worrying and disturbing” and makes the EU demand for his release “all the more urgent.”
“We will use all channels at our disposal to do this,” she added.
In Washington, President Joe Biden said on Tuesday that U.S. sanctions against Belarus are in play, but declined to offer more details.
His press secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. President plans to discuss the incident at a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Republican lawmakers have criticized Mr. Biden for agreeing to meet the Russian leader despite his provocative behaviour in the region but Ms. Psaki said the U.S. President is not afraid to stand up to “adversaries and use a moment of in-person diplomacy to convey areas where he has concern and look for areas of opportunity to work together in areas where we have mutual agreement.”
In September, Canada imposed sanctions on President Alexander Lukashenko, his son and six other senior government officials, which included a travel ban and asset freeze on all eight individuals.
Alena Liavonchanka, chair of the Belarusian Canadian Alliance, applauded Mr. Trudeau for his comments, including his call to release Mr. Protasevich, “whose life and health are in real danger right now,” she said.
Belarus’s presidential elections were held in August, 2020, where Mr. Lukashenko was re-elected for a sixth term and claimed to have won 80 per cent of the vote. Canada and other countries have widely disputed the results of the election as being fraudulent. Many Belarusians believe Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was the real winner.
In Ottawa, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau and Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra issued a statement about Mr. Protasevich’s arrest, saying Belarus’s move “jeopardized the safety of passengers and constitutes serious interference in the fundamental principles and international rules that ensure civil aviation safety around the world.”
The ministers said that Canada will participate in a meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization council this week on the incident and promised “to work with its partners to ensure that the voices of the people of Belarus are heard.”
Lithuanian Foreign Affairs Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said in a statement to The Globe and Mail on Tuesday that the Canadian government must now urge a full investigation of the Ryanair diversion at the council meeting and to ban Belavia Belarusian Airlines, the country’s state-owned carrier, from using Canada’s airspace.
“The signal to the [Lukashenko] regime should be clear – ‘the new normal’ is not possible,” Mr. Landsbergis said.
He also said Canada needs to “use its voice and influence” to press for the release of Belarusian political prisoners, including Mr. Protasevich and Sofia Sapega, his girlfriend who was arrested with him. Countries including Canada must “raise the stakes for the autocratic ruler of Belarus if basic human rights and liberties continue to be abused,” the Lithuanian foreign minister said.
Mr. Landsbergis also urged Canada to harmonize, or co-ordinate its sanctions against Belarus to match the European Union sanctions. He said it’s crucial for the international community to press for “new democratic elections” to be held as soon as possible in Belarus.
Aurel Braun, a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto, said he thinks Canada will target specific individuals in the Belarusian state regime with sanctions and take steps in the field of aviation. He also said that to focus only on Belarus would be to miss the full picture.
“Were it not for the infusion of money from the Kremlin and for the general support that [Vladimir] Putin is exhibiting, Lukashenko might fall,” he said.
With reports from Steven Chase, Associated Press and Reuters
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