In a cinematic maneuver, the Belarusian dictatorship hijacked a Ryanair plane to Greece from Lithuania on Sunday (23). The operation involved a false suspicion of explosives on board and the escort of the Boeing 737-800 by a fighter jet.
According to opponents, the operation was led by dictator Alexandr Lukachenko, to arrest Roman Protassevich, 26, a journalist critical of his regime.
Protassevich, editor-in-chief of the Belamova news channel, was on a Ryanair plane to Vilnius after covering a visit to Athens by Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaia. According to journalists and passengers on the flight, he was arrested in Minsk. The information was confirmed by the Belarusian Interior Ministry on an official application channel, but the post was deleted.
According to the official Belta news agency, it was Lukachenko who personally ordered a MIG 29 fighter to escort the civilian flight to Minsk airport. “The president gave an unequivocal order to turn the plane around and land.”
In a statement, Ryanair said the crew had been warned of a “potential threat to safety on board” by Belarusian air traffic control and had been instructed to divert the flight to Minsk. After an inspection, nothing was found, and the flight, resumed five hours later, arrived safe and sound in Vilnius, the Ireland-based airline said.
Ryanair’s statement also does not mention the fate of Protassevich, one of the 170 passengers on board flight FR 4978. “He was dismounted from the plane and his belongings were thrown on the runway,” the officials said. travelers, according to the chief communications advisor. Tikhanovskaia, Franak Viacorka.
Protassevich told friends on Sunday morning that a foreigner attempted to photograph his documents in the boarding queue for the flight to Vilnius. According to witnesses, as soon as the plane entered Belarusian airspace, agents of the KGB, the Belarusian secret police, pressured the flight crew to divert to Minsk.
Passengers say the blogger “panicked when he realized he would be arrested and said he would face the death penalty.” According to Belarusian media, he is accused of leading the mass disorder, disruption of social order and incitement to social hatred, with sentences of up to 15 years in prison.
The journalist is a co-founder and former editor-in-chief of one of the main Belarusian media, Nexta, which was banned by the dictatorship in October last year after being considered an extremist. Protassevich and other members of the channel have been included in a list of terrorists by the KGB. After threats, he left the country and lived in Lithuania.
Nexta Live was the most popular source of information in the actions against Lukachenko, re-elected in August last year, in a poll deemed fraudulent. The service had 1.9 million subscribers when it was banned. Despite the threats, the channel remained active, under the name Hexta, edited in Poland, by Belarusian blogger Stepan Svetlov, also accused of terrorism.
“From now on, no one flying over Belarus can be safe,” Tikhanovskaia wrote on a social network. She and Viacorka took that same flight not long ago, the communications advisor said: “We were lucky to get to our destination. Belarusian airspace must be avoided and those responsible must be punished. “
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanded the immediate release of Protassevich and declared that “the shocking act of the Lukachenko regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including US citizens”. Blinken also called for an “as soon as possible meeting of the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization” to deal with the incident.
The two most powerful countries of the European Union, Germany and France, condemned the hijacking, described as “an act of unprecedented state terrorism” by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
“The incident will not be without consequences”, declared Charles Michel, President of the European Council, which brings together the leaders of the 27 member countries of the European bloc. “I call on the Belarusian authorities to immediately release the arrested passenger and fully guarantee their rights,” he said in a statement. According to Michel, EU leaders will discuss the “unprecedented” event on Monday.
“Any breach of the rules of international air transport must have consequences,” wrote the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who found the hijacking “unacceptable”.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonytė said the Belarusian regime had put passengers and crew at risk. “The forced landing of a commercial plane to arrest a journalist is a shocking and unprecedented act,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis wrote.
CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists) also said it was “shocked” by Sunday’s action, “although the Lukachenko government has increasingly strangled the press in Belarus, detaining, fining and deporting journalists and sentencing them to increasingly long prison terms “, mentioned
Since assuming the presidency of Belarus for the sixth time, Lukachenko has imposed a violent crackdown. More than 30,000 protesters were arrested, including journalists, opposing politicians, civil rights activists and citizens participating in protests.
At least four died in the first days of the post-election protests, and more than 500 cases of torture have been documented. The dictatorship has opened 2,300 criminal cases against political opponents, activists and protesters, and there are 377 political prisoners, according to human rights organization Viazna.
With the increase in police violence, opponents of the dictatorship have opted for a “white guerrilla”, with microates and cultural events on the Internet.
The press has been the target of repression since the start of the demonstrations on election night. Belarusian and foreign journalists were beaten and detained while working on the cover, the credentials of foreign correspondents were revoked and they were expelled from the country.
The dictatorship has also shut down more than 70 media and civil rights organizations, and this year two television journalists were sentenced to two years in prison for covering protests and an investigative journalist for publishing information denying the claim. the official version of the death of a protester. Last week, the country’s leading independent journalistic website, Tut.by, was shut down.
According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, 521 journalists have since been arrested, of whom 28 remain in prison, 11 of them on criminal charges.