Belarusian dissident Roman Protasevich was violently captured during his flight from Athens to Vilnius in an unprecedented way. The aeroplane that belongs to Irish company Ryanair was forced to land in Minsk because of a fake bomb threat. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed that he saved Europe from the terrorist attack though it was the obvious way to catch the former coordinator of August protests Roman Protasevich. Vladislav Davidzon has written an article about the possible reaction of the European authorities and Belarusian opposition reflection
On Sunday, a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, was forced out of the sky as it traversed Belarusian airspace. The government of Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has clung to power despite widespread protests following a rigged election last August, ordered the plane to make an emergency landing in Minsk under the pretext of a faked bomb threat, carried out by Belarusian security operatives. In an audacious move that sparked a European security crisis, Belarus authorities scrambled a fully armed MiG-29 fighter jet to intercept the civilian flight.
This unprecedented act, denounced by European officials as air piracy, was all aimed at capturing a single man: Roman Protasevich, one of the Belarussian dissidents who has been a constant thorn in Lukashenko’s side. Protasevich was pulled off the plane, along with several other Belarusian and Russian nationals. Vilnius has become a hub of opposition to Lukashenko’s rule, with Lithuania rejecting Lukashenko’s legitimacy and providing support and protection to exiles.
I was already in Vilnius to interview Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as the crisis began. She told Foreign Policy: “We demand the invitation of an investigation into this incident and the start of the process of suspending Belarus’s membership … in the International Civil Aviation Organization. The time for statements has passed. It is obvious that the Belarusians expect decisive action and help from the international community. From now on, not a single person from any country in the world who flies over Belarus is guaranteed basic security.”
Amid the opposition, struggling to process the news, there is growing fear and panic. One of Tikhanovskaya’s aides said on Sunday evening it now seems Lukashenko’s security forces are capable of reaching them anywhere. Unless the European Union acts, there may be no safe haven for a beleaguered democratic opposition. Exiles bleakly compared their home country to Somalia, known for piracy at sea, or to the isolated and murderous state of North Korea.
Exiled 26-year old Belarusian journalist Protasevich was a central figure in the work of the NEXTA news channel on Telegram, an encrypted messaging act that has become a key part of opposition in Russia and Belarus. Along with some intrepid independent journalists still based in Belarus itself, NEXTA and other Telegram channels have continued to provide critical coverage of the repressions and arrests of political prisoners in Belarus. The crisis comes a week after Tut.By, the last serious independent news site operating and reporting in Belarus, was shuttered by authorities, with some of its employees charged with tax-related crimes.
Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend were detained by Belarusian security service agents on the tarmac of Minsk’s airport. Before boarding the flight in Athens, Protasevich had sent messages to his colleagues that suspicious characters were monitoring him and had ostentatiously attempted to photograph his travel documents at the boarding gate. Several of his fellow passengers reportedly stated the terrified journalist had expressed concerns he would be “executed” and had attempted to hand his cellular phones and laptop computer to his girlfriend to keep them from being taken.