Pressure mounted on Belarus on Wednesday as NATO’s chief called for sanctions to be implemented after Minsk’s controversial flight diversion, and as shock rose over an activist’s apparent suicide attempt in court.
Belarus on May 23 scrambled a military jet to escort a Ryanair plane to Minsk, later arresting wanted activist Roman Protasevich and his partner who were on board. Belarus says it had been notified of a bomb threat, but many in the West saw the diversion as a move to jail Protasevich.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday that some members of the transatlantic security alliance were considering taking further action after the European Union and United States rolled out measures against Belarus.
“I think the most important thing now is to make sure that those sanctions that are agreed are fully implemented,” Stoltenberg told reporters during a visit to London for talks with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
“It has to be clear that when a regime like the regime in Minsk behaves in the way they did, violating basic international norms and rules, we will impose costs on them.”
Apparent suicide attempt in court
Stoltenberg’s comments came after a Belarusian activist stabbed himself in the neck during a court hearing on Tuesday after reportedly being told his family and neighbours faced prosecution if he did not plead guilty.
Footage by RFE/RL showed Stepan Latypov lying on a wooden bench inside a prisoner’s cage in the courtroom in the capital Minsk, with police officers standing over him and onlookers screaming.
Latypov was taken to hospital following the incident. Belarusian health authorities reported he was in stable condition following surgery.
The 41-year-old was arrested in September during a crackdown on mass anti-government protests. The demonstrations had erupted in response to a disputed election that handed President Alexander Lukashenko another term.
Latypov had stood in front of a mural in Minsk in a bid to stop authorities painting over opposition graffiti.
He was charged with organising riots, resisting police and fraud. A state television report also accused him of planning to poison police.
He denies any wrongdoing.
In court, Latypov stabbed himself in the throat with an object resembling a pen, Viasna-96 reported.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled leader of the Belarusian opposition, said Latypov’s actions were “the result of state terror, repressions, torture in Belarus”.
Plane diversion fallout
Minsk’s diversion of the plane with Protasevich on board, which was flying from Greece to Lithuania but had been in Belarusian airspace when forced to land, provoked international outrage and saw the EU ban Belarusian planes from the bloc’s airspace.
The bloc had also urged airlines to avoid flying over the ex-Soviet state.
But the chief executive of Wizz Air on Wednesday warned the bloc’s response had negatively impacted aviation, saying they made the industry “a toy of politics” and could undermine its efforts to survive the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t think this is the right response,” Joszef Varadi told Reuters. “I don’t think aviation should be used as a means for political sanctions.
“Nothing has happened that would have jeopardised flight safety or security.
“I don’t think anyone was unsafe for a second. It’s a political measure. This is not a safety measure.”
Protasevich is accused by Minsk of helping orchestrate last year’s anti-government rallies.
Lukashenko’s administration has since clamped down on shows of dissent, arresting opposition activists and protesters.
All major opposition figures are now in jail or exile, and several independent media outlets have been closed.