It was only two minutes before flight FR 4978 entered Lithuanian airspace when it made a sharp turn and changed course, according to data from flightradar24.com.
It was early Sunday afternoon (23) and what politicians, executives and academics call “state piracy”: an operation by the Belarusian dictatorship, which hijacked a Ryanair commercial plane to its capital and arrested a journalist criticism of the regime of Alexandr Lukachenko.
When the pilot announced that the flight was diverted to Minsk, a passenger immediately stood up, opened the luggage rack, picked up his things and began to transfer part of them – a laptop, a cell phone – to his girlfriend. Belamova news channel editor Roman Protassevich, 26, felt he was behind the strange incident.
“Don’t do that. They’ll kill me. I’m a refugee,” he told the crew, according to a passing report to journalist Franak Viacorka, a friend of Protassevich. A commissioner replied: “We are We have no choice, these are Ryanair’s international agreements ”.
Most of the passengers were shocked by the rerouting but were told there were safety reasons, said one passenger who asked not to be identified. “I saw Roman’s reaction [Protassevich]: from the start he was restless, as if he knew what was going to happen, ”the traveler told Belarusian news channel Tut.by. “It looked like if the window had been opened he would have jumped out,” another passenger, Edvinas Dimsa, 37, told AFP news agency.
Half an hour later, when Ryanair’s Boeing – escorted by a military fighter and a helicopter – landed on Belarusian soil, around 50 people, including soldiers and police, were waiting on the runway, in addition to trucks. firefighters and sniffer dogs. “Then they raised suspicion of a bomb on board. But we were still on the plane for half an hour. If there was any danger, they should have taken us away immediately, ”Saulius Danauskas, who was on board the flight, told Lithuanian website Delfi. The travelers were disembarked in groups of five, with their luggage sniffed by the dogs.
According to the passengers, Belarusian agents boarded the plane and forcibly evicted the blogger. “They didn’t hit him in front of us, but I fear for his future. He was upset. I looked him straight in the eye, and it was very sad, ”a traveler told the BBC.
After being searched, the reporter boarded the terminal bus with other passengers. Three minutes later, a policeman came and told him to get off the bus and show his suitcases again. When Protassevich returned to the bus, there were already three officers behind him, reports Tut.by.
The passengers were all shown to an airport terminal, walked past x-ray machines and taken to a waiting room. At this point, according to reports, Protassevich was taken away by the three officers accompanying him. “It was the last time I saw him,” said the traveler interviewed by Tut.by.
About six hours later, at 7:05 p.m. local time, 1:05 p.m. in Brazil, the boarding gate was opened and they returned to the plane. They landed at their original destination, the Lithuanian capital, at 9:26 p.m., more than eight hours after the originally scheduled time. Besides Protassevich and his girlfriend, Russian journalist Sofia Sapega, 23, four other people who boarded the plane in Athens did not reach Vilnius, Lithuanian police said.
On Monday afternoon, the Belarusian government said they were both in prison, but Sapega is not known to be charged. At around 3:30 p.m. (Brazilian time), pro-regime channels released a video in which the blogger – in a rushed and tense statement – says he “has planned protests” and is collaborating with investigators.
“Yesterday I was detained by officers at Minsk National Airport. I am now located in Detention Center No. 1 in Minsk. I can declare that I have no health problem, neither my heart nor any other organ. The police treatment of me is the most correct and the most legal, “he says. In the picture, he appears to have a bruise on his forehead.
who is the arrested blogger
Despite reports that the blogger feared execution, independent Belarusian vehicles claim that the death penalty is not included in the three crimes he is accused of: “committing deliberate actions aimed at inciting social enmity on the basis of professional affiliation ”(penalty of up to 12 years old),“ organize mass unrest ”(15 years) and“ organize actions which seriously violate public order ”(3 years).
Like other journalists, however, Protassevich was included by the KGB in the terrorist list – a conviction for terrorism could, in theory, lead to the death penalty. Belarus is the only post-Soviet and European country to maintain this sentence and executed two prisoners in 2019, according to Amnesty International.
The journalist has attracted the attention of the dictatorship since Nexta, which he co-founded and edited, became one of the main news channels to cover the huge protests against Lukachenko, after the presidential elections in August. 2020. With the Internet blocked for the dictatorship, the channel in application was an indispensable tool for the demonstrators who demanded the resignation of the dictator and free and fair elections.
Protassevich had already been prosecuted in 2017 and in 2019, under threats, he went into exile in Lithuania. He took over the Belamova channel when its editor was arrested by the dictatorship last year. One of the latest messages urged Belarusians to demonstrate in their cities against the death of political prisoner Vitold Ashurk on the 21st in a penal colony. According to the diet, he had a heart attack.
Dmitri Protassevich, the blogger’s father, said his son would probably never expect such a “kidnapping”: “When you cross the border into the European Union, you think you are under international protection.”
When asked how he imagined Roman was doing at the time, he replied that the boy has a strong mind, but is also sensitive: “We hope he stays centered and doesn’t fall for the stuff of the regime. It’s horrible even to think about it, but we are very afraid that he will be beaten and tortured. “
Belarus has denied hijacking the Ryanair flight to arrest the journalist and accused European countries of politicizing the incident. “There is no doubt that the actions of our competent bodies were in accordance with international rules,” said the Foreign Ministry.
The aviation department also blamed the bomb threat on Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza. According to the version, a message was sent in English saying, “We, the Hamas soldiers, demand that Israel cease fire in the Gaza Strip. We demand that the European Union renounce its support for Israel in this war. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, however, ended on the 20th.
The story was rejected by Hamas: “We do not use these methods,” Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for the group, told Reuters.
There was a strong international reaction, and the governments of the European Union and the United Kingdom banned the flights of Belarusian companies and asked their companies not to fly over Belarusian airspace. The EU and the British government will extend the sanctions against the Lukachenko regime.
“It’s terrible. Lukachenko does worse things than [o ditador norte-coreano] Kim Jong Un. It’s genocide now in Belarus, ”Belarusian activist Tatiana Sivachenko told the BBC.
Depressed, ex-protesters see ‘endless winter’
In the streets of Belarus, the atmosphere is desolate, describes translator Jenny, who did not want to give her last name. “We are at a loss for words. There is an endless escalation of horror, and we realized that maybe it wasn’t the bottom yet, ”she said via video conference.
A literature professor fired for supporting protests against the dictatorship, she says last week had already started badly: 12 students and 1 professor from four different universities were brought to justice in criminal cases, allegedly for denouncing Lukachenko.
“A few days later the news of Vitold Ashurk’s death came, then the closure of Tut.by and now this episode with Roman Protassevich. Outside, the weather is fine, spring has started, but we can see that no one is going to help us, there is no one to turn to, there is only infinite darkness, ”he says.
According to the translator, with the intensification of the crackdown on ordinary citizens, who have been arrested or fined simply for carrying a red and white sticker in their wallet, one of the few remaining actions is to write letters. letters to political prisoners. The work will be long: there are more than 405 on Monday, according to Viasna, a human rights organization.