Editorial: Belarus must pay if it hijacked a flight to capture a dissenter

The United States and the European Union have responded with immediate and appropriate outrage to the apparent hijacking of a plane by the authoritarian government of Belarus so that a dissident, activist journalist on board could be arrested. What’s particularly welcome is that the tough words have been accompanied by actions.

On Sunday a commercial flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, was intercepted by a Belarusian fighter jet, apparently on the orders of the country’s longtime president, Alexander Lukashenko. The ostensible cause was a supposed bomb threat, but the real objective seems to have been the arrest of Raman Pratasevich, who was taken into custody after the plane landed in the capital city of Belarus, Minsk. (When the plane was searched, no bomb was found.)

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Living in self-imposed exile in Lithuania, Pratasevich, 26, ran a messaging app that helped organize protests against Lukashenko, a strongman accused of jailing political opponents and orchestrating blatant election fraud. The young dissident faces charges of inciting public disorder and social hatred, offenses that could lead to a more than 12 years imprisonment. His situation may be even more dire, however, because Belarus’ state police agency has reportedly classified him as a terrorist. If charged and convicted of terrorism, he could face the death penalty.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken promptly and properly called for Pratasevich’s immediate release. On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the diversion of the airliner a “shocking act” and said the U.S. was demanding “an immediate, international, transparent and credible investigation of this incident.” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the diversion of the plane amounted to a “hijacking.” They’re right — forcing a plane down in order to take custody of a government critic violates the global agreements on which international air travel depends.

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Meeting in Brussels on Monday, leaders of the European Union increased the pressure on Belarus. They released a statement calling on all EU-based airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace and for measures to deny Belarusian airlines access to airports in the EU, while promising to impose new economic sanctions on Belarus. The leaders also urged an investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization and called for the release of Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega,

This prompt and forceful response is welcome. Interfering with an international flight to kidnap a dissident is not just a violation of human rights but also a breach of international norms and a threat to the safety of passengers.