West condemns plane’s diversion to arrest Belarus journalist

24 May 2021, 20:54

Roman Protasevich attends an opposition rally in Minsk, Belarus, in 2012
Belarus Opposition. Picture: PA

Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the crew there was a bomb threat against the plane as it was crossing through the country’s airspace.

Western outrage has grown and the European Union has threatened more sanctions over the forced diversion of a plane to Belarus in order to arrest an opposition journalist.

The dramatic gambit apparently ordered by the country’s authoritarian president was denounced as state terrorism or sheer piracy.

Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the crew there was a bomb threat against the plane as it was crossing through the country’s airspace and ordered it to land in the capital Minsk.

A Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane – in a brazen show of force by President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled with an iron fist for more than a quarter of a century.

The goal was seemingly the arrest of Roman Protasevich, an activist and journalist who ran a popular messaging app that played a key role in helping organise massive protests against the authoritarian leader.

He and his Russian girlfriend were led off the plane shortly after landing – and authorities have not said where they are being held.

On Monday night, state television showed a brief video of Mr Protasevich in which he said he was giving evidence about organising mass disturbances to investigators.

Seated at a table with his hands folded in front of him and speaking rapidly, he said he was in satisfactory health and his treatment in custody was “maximally correct and according to law”.

The plane, which began its journey in Athens, Greece, was eventually allowed to continue on to Vilnius, Lithuania.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken called the diversion “shocking” and appealed for Mr Protasevich’s release.

EU leaders were particularly forceful in their condemnation of the move against the plane, which was flying between two of the bloc’s member nations and was being operated by an airline based in Ireland, also a member.

The bloc summoned Belarus’s ambassador “to condemn the inadmissible step of the Belarusian authorities” and said in a statement the arrest was “another blatant attempt to silence all opposition voices in the country”.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said that “the scandalous incident in Belarus shows signs of state terrorism and it’s unbelievable”.

Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin told broadcaster RTE that the episode “reflects growing authoritarianism across the world”.

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen earlier said it amounted to a “hijacking”.

The Ryanair plane carrying opposition figure Roman Protasevich which was diverted to Minsk after a bomb threat, lands at the International Airport outside Vilnius, Lithuania
The Ryanair plane carrying Roman Protasevich, which was diverted to Minsk after a bomb threat, lands at the International Airport outside Vilnius, Lithuania (Mindaugas Kulbis/AP)

EU leaders have tried to bring Belarus closer to the bloc – to encourage democratic reforms and reduce the influence of Russia – but they have failed so far.

On Monday, hours ahead of a previously planned summit, some EU leaders were threatening more sanctions – from scrapping landing rights in the bloc for Belarus’s national airline to exclusions from sporting events.

Without waiting for the EU’s decision, Latvia’s airBaltic said it would avoid using Belarusian airspace, and Lithuania’s government said it would instruct all flights to and from the Baltic country to avoid the country as well starting on Tuesday.

British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps also said he has instructed the UK Civil Aviation Authority “to request airlines avoid Belarusian airspace in order to keep passengers safe”.

He added that he was suspending the permit allowing the Belarusian flag carrier Belavia to operate in the UK.

The US and the EU have already imposed sanctions on top Belarusian officials amid months of protests, which were triggered by Mr Lukashenko’s re-election to a sixth presidential term in an August vote that the opposition rejected as rigged.

More than 34,000 people have been arrested in Belarus since then, and thousands were brutally beaten.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry on Monday bristled at what it described as “belligerent” EU statements, insisting that the country’s authorities acted “in full conformity with international rules”.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko (Sergei Sheleg/BelTA Pool Photo via AP)

Flight tracker sites indicated the plane was about six miles from the Lithuanian border when it was diverted.

There have been conflicting reports of what exactly happened.

The press service of Mr Lukashenko said the president himself ordered that a fighter jet accompany the plane after he was informed of the bomb threat.

Deputy air force commander Andrei Gurtsevich told Belarusian state TV that the plane’s crew made the decision to land in Minsk, adding that the fighter jet was sent to “provide help to the civilian aircraft to ensure a safe landing”.

But Ryanair said in a statement that Belarusian air traffic control instructed the plane to divert to the capital.

The plane was searched, and no bomb was found.

Ryanair’s chief executive Michael O’Leary described the move as “a case of state-sponsored hijacking … state-sponsored piracy”.

“It’s very frightening for the crew, for the passengers who were held under armed guard, had their bags searched,” he told the Irish radio station Newstalk.

Women hold posters reading 'I'm/we're Roman Protasevich' as they wait to see passengers of the Ryanair plane which was diverted to Minsk after a bomb threat, at the International Airport outside Vilnius, Lithuania
Women hold posters reading ‘I’m/we’re Roman Protasevich’ at the International Airport outside Vilnius (Mindaugas Kulbis/AP)

In an apparent reference to the Belarusian security agency that still goes under its Soviet-era name KGB, Mr O’Leary said he believes “some KGB agents offloaded from the aircraft” in Minsk.

Of the 126 people aboard the flight initially, only 121 made it to Vilnius, according to Rolandas Kiskis, chief of the criminal police bureau in the Lithuanian capital where a pre-trial investigation investigation has begun.

Passengers described Mr Protasevich’s shock when he realised that the plane was going to land in Minsk.

“I saw this Belarusian guy with girlfriend sitting right behind us. He freaked out when the pilot said the plane is diverted to Minsk. He said there’s death penalty awaiting him there,” passenger Marius Rutkauskas said after the plane finally arrived in Vilnius.

“We sat for an hour after the landing. Then they started releasing passengers and took those two. We did not see them again.”

Mr Protasevich’s girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, is a student at a university in Vilnius.

Mr Protasevich was a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app’s Nexta channel, which played a prominent role in helping organise major protests against Mr Lukashenko.

Nearly two million Belarusians in the nation of 9.3 million people have followed the channel, which has served as the main conduit for organising demonstrations and offered advice on how to dodge police cordons.

'Freedom for Roman Protasevich' is written on a protest wagon in front of the embassy of Belarus in Berlin, Germany
‘Freedom for Roman Protasevich’ is written on a sign in front of the embassy of Belarus in Berlin, Germany (Christoph Soeder/dpa via AP)

It has also run photos, video and other materials documenting the brutal police crackdown on the protests.

The Belarusian authorities have designated it as extremist and levelled charges against Mr Protasevich of inciting mass riots and fanning social hatred.

He could face 15 years in prison if convicted.

In November, the Belarusian KGB also put Mr Protasevich on the list of people suspected of involvement in terrorism, an ominous sign that he could face even graver accusations.

Terrorism is punishable by death in Belarus, the only country in Europe that maintains capital punishment.

Amid the international outrage, Moscow quickly offered a helping hand to its ally.

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said the episode needs to be investigated – but that it could not be rushed.

The two neighbours have close political, economic and military ties, and Mr Lukashenko has relied on Moscow’s support amid Western sanctions.

On Monday Mr Lukashenko signed a law sharply restricting news media activities and allowing them to be shut down without a court hearing.

Under the new law, news media are banned from making live reports on unauthorised mass gatherings. It also allows the Information Ministry to order a media outlet’s closure; previously media closures required a court decision.

Other strictures include prohibiting publication of the results of opinion polls that are not authorised by the government.

By Press Association