Belarusian activists say anti-government campaigner Stepan Latypov has been returned to jail after stabbing himself in the neck during his trial, as relations between Belarus and the West deteriorated further over Minsk’s diversion of a Ryanair flight so that another opposition figure could be arrested.
A bloodied Mr Latypov (41) was rushed to hospital on Tuesday after cutting his throat with a pen in a Minsk courtroom, where he accused investigators of threatening to persecute his relatives unless he confessed to committing crimes during last year’s huge protests against Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
Several people died, hundreds were injured and more than 30,000 detained during the police crackdown on the rallies, and Mr Lukashenko’s Russian-backed regime continues to pursue and convict critics of his autocratic 27-year rule.
Belarus last month told a Ryanair flight en route from Greece to Lithuania of a supposed bomb threat on board and diverted it to Minsk, where journalist and activist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were taken off the plane and arrested.
The EU’s aviation safety agency (EASA) on Wednesday upgraded its warning for Belarus by calling on member states to tell their airlines “that conducting operations in Belarus airspace . . . is no longer allowed” in normal circumstances.
In reaction to Minsk’s diversion of the Ryanair jet on May 23rd, EU leaders barred Belarusian airlines from the bloc’s airspace, and urged EU-based carriers not fly over the country – although a few have continued to do so.
The chief executive of Hungary’s Wizz Air, a major rival of Ryanair, criticised EU efforts to divert carriers around Belarus.
“I don’t think this is the right response. I don’t think aviation should be used as a means for political sanctions,” Jozsef Varadi told Reuters. “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.”
Ukraine has joined the EU-led response to the Ryanair incident, and Belarus said it intends to ask the International Civil Aviation Organisation to “assess the legality of the actions of Ukraine and other states that...have imposed bans and restrictions on the use of their airspace for Belarusian air carriers”.
The EU and US have announced plans to impose sanctions on key sectors of the Belarusian economy, and Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said Belarus would be discussed at this month’s alliance summit, along with what he called Minsk’s “close” co-operation with a “more assertive” Russia.
Nato placed restrictions on the access of Belarusian diplomats accredited to the alliance’s Brussels headquarters this week, while Belarus banned most of its 9.5 million people from leaving the country and received the latest $500 million (€409m) tranche from Russia of $1.5 billion (€1.2bn) in agreed loans.