Who is Roman Protasevich, activist arrested in Belarus?

24 May 2021, 09:59

Roman Protasevich was arrested after a commercial Ryanair flight was grounded at Minsk
Roman Protasevich was arrested after a commercial Ryanair flight was grounded at Minsk. Picture: PA

By Emma Clarke

The 'hijacking' of the Ryanair flight has sparked outcry

Belarusian opposition activist Roman Protasevich was arrested after a commercial, Lithuania-bound Ryanair flight was diverted and grounded at Minsk.

The aircraft, which was flying from Athens to Vilnius, was forced to land in the capital of Belarus, following a false bomb threat.

Just two minutes before the flight was due to cross into Lithuanian airspace, it was intercepted and forced to divert. The plane was grounded for seven hours, before it was allowed to continue on course.

Protasevich was then seized by authorities once the plane was grounded.

READ MORE: UK condemns Belarus after Ryanair flight diverted 'so blogger could be arrested'

READ MORE: Belarusian journalist explains how regime is 'beginning to crumble' after rigged elections

Political leaders around the world have condemned the "highjacking" of the aircraft, with the opposition in Belarus saying the incident was orchestrated by the government in order to arrest the blogger.

Ryanair released a statement shortly after the incident, saying that the plane had now safely arrived at its destination and nothing untoward had been found on the aircraft.

Who is Roman Protasevich?

26-year-old activist Roman Protasevich previously founded Poland-based digital news outlet, NEXTA.

Last year, the news site broadcast footage of protests against Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president who has been in power since 1994.

The protests came after the Belarusian election, in which Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory.

Protasevich faces charges of extremism, including organising mass riots and inciting social hatred - allegations he denies.

The journalist could face up to 15 years in prison if he's convicted.

Alexander Lukashenko's rule

In 2012, EU leaders held a summit in Brussels over the Belarus President's alleged human rights abuses.

Lukashenko, who was dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by former German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, faced widespread condemnation after commenting that it was "better to be a dictator than gay."

Westerwelle was Germany's first openly gay minister.

Lukashenko was also accused of anti-Semitism in 2007, after his comments about the Jewish community on a live radio broadcast.

Just a year into his presidency, Lukashenko made controversial remarks about Adolf Hitler, complimenting the dictator for "evolving" German order and describing how the country had been "raised from ruins" under his control.

What have world leaders said about the 'highjacking'?

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said he was "alarmed" but the "outlandish" action by Belarus, stating that it will "have serious implications".

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, said the Biden administration was “coordinating with our partners on next steps” after the "shocking act".

Lithuania's president, Gitanas Nauseda, said: "The Belarus regime is behind the abhorrent action.

"I demand to free Roman Protasevic urgently!"

In an official statement, budget airline Ryanair wrote: "We apologise sincerely to all affected passengers for this regrettable delay, which was outside Ryanair's control."