World

The United States and European Union condemn plane ‘hijack’ and arrest of dissident Belarusian journalist. The Israel–Hamas ceasefire is holding as opposition leader Yair Lapid tries to form a coalition to lead Israel.

By Jonathan Pearlman.

Samoa’s first woman PM sworn in despite standoff

Samoa’s new prime minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, addresses the media outside parliament in Apia on Monday.
Credit: AP

Great power rivalry

Belarus: Last Sunday afternoon, Ryanair flight 4978 departed from Athens in Greece for Vilnius in Lithuania – a trip that crosses Belarus, whose longstanding ruler, Alexander Lukashenko, is often referred to as Europe’s last dictator.

As the plane flew over Belarus, the pilots received a radio message saying there had been a bomb threat and the aircraft would have to land. Shortly after, a Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet appeared alongside the Ryanair Boeing 737-800 to escort it to Minsk, the nation’s capital.

When the flight landed, a passenger, Roman Protasevich, a dissident journalist who had fled from Belarus to Lithuania in 2019, was arrested. Sofia Sapega, Protasevich’s partner, was also detained before the plane was allowed to travel on to Vilnius.

Protasevich, who is 26 years old, co-founded an online news service that has criticised Lukashenko and promoted mass demonstrations following a disputed election last year. Lukashenko, who has been president for 27 years, clung to power after ordering a violent crackdown on the protesters.

But the interception of flight 4978 – described as a “hijacking” by some European leaders – this week led to widespread international condemnation and further isolated the 66-year-old leader.

On Monday, the European Union banned Belarusian airlines from entering the 27-nation bloc and signalled it would impose economic sanctions. Several major airlines suspended flights over Belarus. Michael O’Leary, the head of Ireland-based airline Ryanair, told Irish radio: “This was a case of state-sponsored hijacking.”

United States president Joe Biden condemned Belarus, saying the plane diversion and arrest of Protasevich were a “direct affront to international norms”.

Russia, a backer of Lukashenko, said Belarus had acted lawfully and the incident was a “domestic affair”.

On Monday, Belarusian authorities posted a video online in which Protasevich, appearing from detention, said he was in good health. His father, Dzmitry Protasevich, told Reuters on Tuesday: “I think he was forced. It’s not his words … You can see he is nervous.”

The neighbourhood

Samoa: Fiame Naomi Mata’afa was sworn in as Samoa’s prime minister in a tent on Monday after she was locked out of parliament by Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, who has been Samoa’s prime minister for the past 23 years and has refused to step aside after losing an election last month.

After the swearing-in, Tuilaepa declared the ceremony was illegal and accusing his rival of “treason”. He also claimed the Supreme Court was biased after it ruled his move to prevent parliament from sitting was unlawful. The court had previously rejected an attempt to hold a second election.

The Pacific nation of Samoa, which has about 205,000 residents and no military, is in the grip of a bitter political standoff. The crisis follows an election in April in which Mata’afa’s opposition FAST party won an equal number of seats to the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), which has held power for almost 40 years. An independent MP later joined FAST, paving the way for Mata’afa to become the country’s first female prime minister.

Mata’afa, 64, whose father was Samoa’s first prime minister, is a matai, or high chiefess, and was formerly in the HRPP. She has championed the representation of women in politics in a country where parliament and other state institutions have been heavily dominated by men. She told Radio New Zealand this week Tuilaepa “needs to get a grip”. “He was getting to that point in that long and distinguished career where he thought he was, you know, omnipotent and could now do whatever he liked,” she said.

Mata’afa quit the HRPP last year over plans to remove the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction over land disputes.

Following the close election result, the country’s electoral commission announced not enough women had been elected to meet the country’s 10 per cent quota and awarded an extra seat to the HRPP. The Supreme Court overturned the decision.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne urged the rival leaders to “respect the rule of law and democratic processes”. “We have faith in Samoa’s institutions including the judiciary,” she said in a tweet.

Democracy in retreat

Mali: On Monday Mali’s president, Bah Ndaw, and prime minister, Moctar Ouane, were both arrested following a cabinet reshuffle that demoted two senior military figures.

Ndaw and Ouane were leading a transitional government and a return to democratic elections after a coup last August. The coup was led by Colonel Assimi Goïta, who oversaw this week’s takeover. He insisted he would proceed with elections planned for next year and accused Ndaw and Ouane of attempting to “sabotage the transition”.

The United Nations, the EU, the African Union and the US all condemned Goïta’s takeover and demanded the leaders’ release.

Goïta’s ousting of Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta last year followed public protests over corruption scandals, the faltering economy and the government’s handling of an insurgency by Islamist groups in the country’s north. France, the former colonial power in Mali, has deployed about 5000 troops across several countries in the region to combat militants linked to al-Qaeda and Da’esh. French President Emmanuel Macron this week accused Goïta of a “coup within a coup”.

Spotlight: Israel–Hamas ceasefire

A ceasefire between Israel and Hamas appeared to be holding this week, even as a series of violent incidents and mass arrests raised concerns about the ongoing tensions in Jerusalem that sparked the 11-day conflict.

On Monday, Israeli authorities shot dead a Palestinian who stabbed and injured two Israelis, including a soldier, in east Jerusalem. The attack occurred near the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where Jewish settlers have been attempting to evict a group of Palestinian families – a move that has led to protests and police crackdowns in recent weeks. Since the ceasefire began, Israeli police have continued to conduct operations around the al-Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City, a site where previous police raids inflamed tensions in Jerusalem and beyond.

On Monday and Tuesday, Israeli police arrested more than 300 people who were suspected of involvement in the riots that broke out across Israel in mainly mixed Jewish–Arab towns during the 11 days of violence. Most of those arrested were Arab citizens of Israel. The violence followed the outbreak of fighting between Israel and Hamas, which involved rocket attacks by Hamas and air strikes by Israel that killed about 250 Palestinians and 12 Israelis.

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, visited the region this week and met with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to try to ensure the Egypt-brokered truce holds. The US will reopen a diplomatic mission in Jerusalem that covers Palestinian affairs. Its status had been downgraded by Donald Trump during his presidency. Blinken also promised additional aid to the Palestinians but proposed working with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority rather than with Hamas, which controls Gaza.

As Blinken tried to soothe Israeli–Palestinian tensions, Israel’s opposition leader, Yair Lapid, was desperately trying to form a coalition this week to unseat Netanyahu. Lapid has until Wednesday to form a coalition. Netanyahu was initially given 28 days to form a coalition but could not do so. If Lapid fails, Israel could face its fifth election in two years. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 29, 2021 as "Samoa’s first woman PM sworn in despite standoff".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.