This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
A majority of members of the UN Security Council have condemned Belarus for issuing a bomb threat “under a false pretext” to justify the diversion of a commercial passenger flight to Minsk to arrest dissident Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend.
The Security Council session late on October 31 was called to hear a report from the president of the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) on the May 2021 incident, when Belarus scrambled a military jet to escort an Athens-to-Vilnius flight to land in Minsk just before it was to leave Belarusian airspace.
“The pilots were invited to divert to land in Minsk and deliberately left with no other option, and despite their multiple requests to be put in contact with their operations center in order to coordinate a decision, no attempt was made by the Minsk Area Control Center to do so,” ICAO President Salvatore Sciacchitano told the meeting.
“The additional information and materials gathered helped to fill some of the remaining gaps and led to the conclusion that Belarus senior officials orchestrated the deliberate diversion of the flight under the false pretext of a bomb threat,” he added.
Belarusian authorities have claimed they acted because of a bomb threat from the Palestinian militant group Hamas that turned out to be false.
Once the plane was on the tarmac in Minsk, Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were detained to face charges related to civil disturbances that followed a disputed presidential election in August 2020 that handed authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka a sixth term in office despite opposition claims the balloting was rigged.
Following Sciacchitano’s testimony, several Security Council members decried the move by Minsk.
“So the Lukashenka regime has broken international law, created a major risk to the safety of innocent passengers, and undermined aviation safety more broadly — proving itself to be entirely irresponsible on the issue of international peace and security,” Barbara Woodward, the U.K. permanent representative to the United Nations, told the meeting.
“And for what? All to silence an opposition journalist, further stifling any semblance of free speech left in Belarus,” she added.
U.S. adviser Jeffrey DeLaurentis said the diversion was not the action of “a responsible international actor” and that “there must be consequences for those responsible.”
“The United States calls on Belarus to release Sofia Sapega, to cease the intimidation and harassment of opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich, and for the unconditional release of the more than 1,300 political prisoners currently held by the regime,” he said.
Among the 15 members of the Security Council, only Russia and China came to Belarus’s defense.
Beijing’s permanent representative to the council said the ICAO should not be used as a political tool and that sanctions imposed on Belarus’s aviation sector over the diversion “have no basis in law” and must be rescinded “immediately.”
Pratasevich, who fled Belarus in 2019, worked as a key administrator of the Telegram channel Nexta-Live, which covered mass protests denouncing the official results of the election. He has yet to go on trial and the status of the investigation against him is unclear.
After a trial behind closed doors, a court sentenced Sapega in May to six years in prison for inciting social hatred.