Belarus’ authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko forced a European airliner flying in the country’s airspace to land in Minsk in order to arrest an opposition journalist on board, prompting widespread international condemnation and calls for sanctions.
Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for nearly three decades, dispatched a fighter jet on Sunday to force a Ryanair flight approaching Vilnius to land in Minsk, according to a Telegram channel linked to Lukashenko’s office. Authorities said they were responding to a bomb threat, which later turned out to be false, but Western officials called it an act of state-sponsored hijacking and voiced concerns about future air travel over the ex-Soviet nation.
Roman Protasevich, 26, a former editor of the popular opposition Telegram channel NEXTA, was arrested after the plane landed in Minsk. With most independent news media shuttered in Belarus, NEXTA was central in covering and organising last year’s unprecedented mass protests against Lukashenko.
Marius Rutkauskas, a passenger on the flight, described Protasevich’s shock at learning what was happening. “He freaked out when the pilot said the plane is diverted to Minsk. He said there’s death penalty awaiting him there,” Rutkauskas said, according to the Associated Press.
“The regime deployed special services, sent fighter jets and organised the hijacking of an entire civilian airliner in order to take Roman hostage,” exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said on YouTube. “His life is now in danger.”
Diverting the plane was a brazen move even by Lukashenko’s standards, as it demonstrated that the man often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator” is willing to target a European airliner full of EU citizens in order to go after his opponents.
Sergey Radchenko, a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC said that the West’s muted response to the violence against protesters last year has emboldened the Belarusian leader.
“Lukashenko is intent on further demonstrating to the West, and to the people of Belarus, that he has long reach. The plane hijacking serves this aim,” Radchenko told VICE World News.
Western governments responded with fury. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, tweeted that the “outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences.” She called for sanctions against those responsible for the “hijacking” of the Ryanair flight, and called for Protasevich to be released immediately.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted, “We strongly condemn the Lukashenka regime's brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist.”
Julie Fisher, the US Ambassador to Belarus said that Minsk cannot be allowed to threaten the safety of air passengers. “Private travellers cannot be subject to diversion and delay by the whims and machinations of a vindictive regime,” she wrote.
Along with Protasevich, Belarusian authorities also detained his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, a 23-year-old university student who is a Russian national. Her mother Anna Dudich told the BBC’s Russian service that Sapega has been taken to a detention facility in Minsk, notorious for its violent treatment of detainees. Sapega was able to send her mother a brief message containing only one word, “Mama.”
Reaction from Moscow, which has stood by Lukashenko in the wake of the protests, was muted on Sunday. Russian parliament member Vyacheslav Lysakov called Protasevich’s arrest a “brilliant” special operation, but there were no statements from the Kremlin. However on Monday, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Western governments were being hypocritical in their condemnation of Belarus’ actions, pointing to an incident in 2013 when Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane was grounded in Austria, reportedly following a tipoff that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was on board.
Protasevich was returning to Vilnius from Greece when he noticed a suspicious man, middle-aged and bald, trailing him at the Athens airport and trying to photograph his documents. “It looks like the KGB was keeping tabs on me at the airport,” he wrote to his friends, according to screen shots published by NEXTA.
Ryanair said in a statement Sunday that the crew was notified by Belarusian air controllers of a potential security threat on board “and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.” Belarusian authorities searched the aircraft and “nothing untoward was found.” The plane and the passengers were cleared to fly to Vilnius seven hours later. Ryanair did not mention Protasevich’s arrest.
In a fresh statement to VICE World News on Monday, Ryanair said it condemns the action of Belarusian authorities as “an act of aviation piracy.” In an interview with Ireland's Newstalk radio on Monday Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said that Belarusian officials were aiming to remove a journalist and his travel companion from the flight. “We believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well."
As EU officials debated how to respond to Lukashenko’s actions, concerns deepened over whether it was safe to fly over Belarus. AirBaltic said it was suspending flights over Belarusian airspace until the situation becomes clear. And in what appeared to be another show of force from Minsk, Belarusian authorities delayed a Lufthansa flight from Minsk to Frankfurt, saying that airport officials received an anonymous tip about a terrorist attack being planned on that flight. The information turned out to be false, airport officials said, and the flight was cleared to go two hours later.
In an even more bizarre move, Belarusian authorities blamed Hamas for the alleged bomb threat that led Minsk to divert the Ryanair flight. Artem Sikorsky, a top official with Belarus’ Transport and Communications Ministry, cited a letter he said was sent to airport officials in Minsk. “We, the soldiers of Hamas, demand that Israel stop fire in Gaza. We demand that the European Union end its support of Israel in this war.” The letter went on to say that a bomb had been placed on board the Ryanair flight. “If you don’t carry out our demands, the bomb will explode over Vilnius on May 23,” the note said, according to Sikorsky.
Protasevich has been living in Vilnius in exile. He is wanted in Belarus in connection with the protests and could face up to 15 years in jail if convicted. Belarusian authorities have put Protasevich and another NEXTA co-founder on a terrorist list.
Protasevich’s mother Natalia Protasevich told NEXTA that she had a nagging feeling that something was wrong with her son, when she saw the news of his arrest on social media. “I am speechless,” she said.
“I just want to say that my son, my son is simply a hero,” she added, her voice quivering. “I really hope that the international community will come together, I really hope for that.”
Huge protests against Lukashenko erupted across Belarus last summer, after he was elected to a sixth term in office in a vote widely viewed as rigged. With tacit backing from the Kremlin, Belarusian authorities cracked down violently on demonstrators, arresting over 32,000 people, beating hundreds and forcing opposition leaders, including Tikhanovskaya, into exile. And while protests fizzled out in winter months, the government crackdown has continued. Last week, police raided the offices of the country’s biggest independent news outlet, Tut.by, and detained 12 employees.
Tikhanovskaya called on Western nations to act. “The time of statements is over. Belarusians expect resolute action and help from the international community,” she said. “From now on a person from any country in the world flying over Belarus cannot be guaranteed even basic safety.”
The United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organisation said it was “strongly concerned” by the incident in Belarus. “We look forward to more information being officially confirmed by the countries and operators concerned,” it said in a statement.