Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Belarus’ decision to intercept a Ryanair flight and arrest an opposition journalist on board Sunday as a “shocking act” by the country’s leadership that threatened press freedom and the lives of those on board.
“This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens,” Blinken said in a statement. “Initial reports suggesting the involvement of the Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane are deeply concerning and require full investigation.”
Blinken’s comments came just hours after Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko ordered a fighter jet to intercept the plane, which was carrying Roman Protasevich. Protasevich, 26, is a co-founder of a prominent opposition news service and has been living in Lithuania in exile for the last several years after the service was declared extremist for organizing protests against the government. He was traveling from Greece to his home when the plane flew into Belarusian airspace.
Lukashenko has taken aggressive steps to curb any dissent following the country’s disputed election last year, including shuttering most independent media outlets. Belarusian press services said the plane was diverted after a bomb threat, but no bomb was found on the aircraft.
The Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an arm of the United Nations, said it was “strongly concerned” about the incident and said the diversion could be in contravention of international rules:
Blinken added that the Biden administration would continue to stand by journalists worldwide.
“Independent media are an essential pillar supporting the rule of law and a vital component of a democratic society,” he said. “We stand with the Belarusian people in their aspirations for a free, democratic and prosperous future and support their call for the regime to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.”