Belarus: Outrage over a brazen plane hijacking and kidnapping of Roman Protasevich

IMS continues to call for the immediate release of the Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich, and his partner, Sofia Sapega, kidnapped and incarcerated in Minsk on 23 May after authorities forced their flight to land, in what European leaders called “a hijacking” and an act of “air piracy”.

As events unfold, IMS has issued a follow-up to the initial reaction, published on 24 May.

The EU has decided to ban Belarusian airlines from European airspace and told EU airlines not to fly over Belarus. The European Council has called for an urgent investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization and for the adoption of further targeted economic sanctions.

“As outrageous as it is, this case goes beyond the brazen, barbaric action of hijacking a flight. By kidnapping a journalist from high in the skies, the regime is sending a menacing message to its critics – it is a no-holds-barred effort to muzzle, to crush the critical voice,” Head of IMS Global Response Department Gulnara Akhundova said.

On Monday evening the regime disclosed the whereabouts of Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich in Okrestina – a notorious prison in Minsk, where thousands of protestors detained in Belarus post-election have been tortured, beaten and raped.

State-controlled Telegram channels released a video statement from Protasevich in which he confirmed he was detained by authorities at Minsk National Airport by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. He said he had “no health concerns” and was treated “correctly” and “lawfully” when taken into custody and that he was “cooperating” with the investigation. In the video, Protasevich looks intimidated, pale and there is a bruise on his forehead. The statement, which appeared to be coached, raised fears that Protasevich was coerced or threatened in custody. 

International standards for fair trial guarantee the right not to be forced to incriminate oneself or to confess guilt. Broadcasting a person confessing to crimes for which, at the time of broadcast, they have been neither tried nor convicted is a clear violation of international standards. Further, any statement made as a result of torture is inadmissible in evidence, except in proceedings against the alleged perpetrator of the torture. [Article 15 of the Convention against Torture, Article 10 of the Inter-American Convention on Torture.] Other international standards are broader, excluding not only statements elicited as a result of torture but also those elicited as a result of other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. [Article 12 of the Declaration against Torture, Article 69(7) of the ICC Statute, Guideline 16 of the Guidelines on the Role of Prosecutors; see Principle 27 of the Body of Principles.] 

Activists and protesters detained in recent months have reported suffering serious abuses and being forced to make confessions. Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has tweeted: “This is how Roman looks under physical and moral pressure. I demand the immediate release of Roman and all political prisoners.”

IMS reiterates its calls for the immediate release of Roman Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapega, as well as an international investigation into the hijacking of the RyanAir flight FR4978, the kidnapping of Protasevich and other crimes committed by the regime in Belarus. IMS calls for the international community to expand the current sanctions to hit the regime financially and do so in a swift and coordinated manner.

“There has been one aggressive escalation undermining rule of law after another since the rise of the opposition last year. A closer look at the other ongoing and egregious human rights abuses in Belarus will undoubtedly lead to a surge of outrage from the international community. The hijacking of a commercial flight to detain a critic is the culmination of a frantic, ruthless crackdown on peaceful dissent in Belarus, and shows there is no limit for the regime to retaliate, so what could be next? The best way to put an end to this outrageous crackdown on civil liberties is to introduce harsh financial sanctions, to hit the regime in its wallet,” Akhundova said.