Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya hailed the support that has been expressed by people around the world after Belarus diverted a commercial jet to Minsk and arrested a dissident journalist on board.
"I am very touched by the support I see in Lithuania and all around the world," Tsikhanouskaya told reporters in Vilnius on May 29 as protests were held in several European capitals as part of a global day of solidarity with the Belarusian opposition. Afterward she expressed her thanks “for the amazing atmosphere today” on Twitter.
Tsikhanouskaya called for the protests to mark the first anniversary of the arrest of her husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, a popular blogger, who planned to run against authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the country’s August 2020 presidential election before he was arrested. Tsikhanouski remains in jail and faces many more years in prison if convicted of the charges against him related to his attempt to participate in the election. In addition to the solidarity protest in Vilnius, demonstrations were held in Kyiv and Warsaw, where the parents of Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich, who was forcibly detained together with his girlfriend Sofia Sapega on May 23 after the jet was diverted, spoke.
“I’m calling on all EU countries and the United States to please help us free Raman and Sofia, as well as everyone else who has been imprisoned,” Pratasevich’s mother, Natalia, told the crowd of several hundred.
"We want to live in a free country, in a country where everyone has the right to express his beliefs," his father, Dmitry, added. The demonstrators held pictures of Pratasevich and Sapega and waved the red and white flag of the Belarusian opposition. They chanted "Long Live Belarus" and held up signs with slogans such as "Help Belarus" and "Freedom for Belarus." Pratasevich, 26, is facing charges of being behind civil disturbances, an offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Members of the Media Freedom Coalition issued a statement on May 29 condemning the forced diversion of the plane and the arrest of Pratasevich. “This unprecedented and shocking action constitutes a full frontal attack on media freedom and has serious implications on the right of freedom of expression and opinion more broadly,” the coalition said in a statement posted at the website of the U.S. State Department.
It said the action is “all the more troubling when seen in the context of the large-scale campaign to silence independent voices in Belarus.” The statement, signed by the governments of 21 countries, said some 400 journalists and workers in the media in Belarus have faced various forms of repression as they reported on the disputed August 9 election. The Media Freedom Coalition also demanded the immediate and unconditional release of Pratasevich and other journalists and media workers. Lukashenka’s decision to intercept the Ryanair flight and arrest Pratasevich has drawn additional sanctions from the United States and threats of sanctions and more serious actions from the European Union.
Most European countries have urged their aircraft to avoid Belarus airspace and banned Belarus carriers from their skies, and the he UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has launched an investigation.
Lukashenka, who met in the Russian Black Sea resort city of Sochi with Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 28, said the reaction by Western countries to the incident had been an “outburst of emotions.” Lukashenka was in Sochi for a second day of meetings on May 29. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists that Russia was prepared to send the second $500 million tranche of a $1.5 billion loan to Belarus “in the immediate future.”