Belarusian president diverts flight to detain journalist critical of regime

The flight was diverted on the orders of President Alexander Lukashenko after a simulated bomb threat was made to arrest journalist Roman Protasevich
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PHOTO/AFP  -   A photo taken in Minsk on 25 March 2012 shows the former editor of the Belarusian opposition Telegram channel @nexta_tv, Roman Protassevitch, during the 'Freedom Day' demonstration

The Belarusian authorities have detained 26-year-old journalist Roman Protasevich following the diversion of a Ryanair commercial flight from Athens to Vilnius to Minsk airport. The flight crew was warned of "a potential security threat on board and instructed to divert the aircraft to the nearest airport". According to Belarusian Transport Minister Artem Sikorsi, this threat is allegedly related to a bomb threat by Hamas. In addition, the authorities instructed a fighter jet to guard the flight and the passengers.

However, once the plane landed in Minsk, no explosive device was found on the plane. After forcing passengers to undergo a further security check, Belarusian journalist and opposition activist Roman Protasevich was arrested, the Belarusian Interior Ministry has confirmed. 

Protasevich founded one of Poland-based Telegram's Nexta and Nexta Live channels with 1.2 million followers. The media outlet has been one of the main disseminators of information about the government protests in the first weeks of August 2020 following the presidential elections, which were accused of being "fraudulent". After reporting on these events, Protasevich was in exile in Lithuania and was wanted by the Belarusian country.

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PHOTO/SPUTNIK/ALEXANDER ASTAFYEV - Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko

The elections of 9 August 2020 gave victory to Lukashenko, who had been in power since 1994. In these new elections, Lukashenko won 80.01 percent of the vote against the opposition Tikhanovskaya, with 10.1 percent, according to the final count. After demanding that new elections be held, the president-elect refused completely and denied the accusations that the elections were fraudulent. However, countries such as the US, the UK and Ukraine have never recognised the holding of the elections.  

From Nexta, mass protests were organised against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko after he was re-elected in August last year. The channel has been branded "extremist" by the Belarusian authorities and has been accused of "inciting social hatred". In addition, the Belarusian Security Agency accuses the journalist of being a "terrorist", for which he could be sentenced to 15 years in prison or the death penalty.

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AFP/ PETRAS MALUKAS - A photo taken on 23 May 2021 shows a Ryanair passenger plane from Athens, Greece, which was diverted to Minsk on the same day by Belarusian authorities

Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was also on the same plane with Roman and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, who was also arrested, said that "The regime forced a plane to land to arrest Roman Protasevich" and that he would face "the death penalty in Belarus". Alongside this, according to opposition and former culture minister Pavel Latushko, two Belarusians and four Russians did not continue the journey, which was destined to land in Vilnius. 

Protasevich's arrest has caused international outrage. NATO along with several European capitals, as well as the opposition, have demanded a firm response from European partners. Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda has called for his immediate release. Alongside this, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, announced that this is an "unprecedented" event and that it will be discussed at the extraordinary European summit as "it will not go without consequences". 

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PHOTO/ FLIGHTRADAR24.COM via REUTERS - A graphic shows the trajectory of Ryanair flight 4978 from Athens to Vilnius, carrying Belarusian opposition activist and blogger Roman Protasevich

The president of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyden, also took a stand, tweeting that "any violation of international air transport rules must have consequences" and stressed that the incident was "absolutely unacceptable". Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has demanded "the immediate release" of the journalist and "strongly condemned" the airline's forced diversion. 

In this regard, the European Union has summoned the Belarusian ambassador. According to Borrell, this request was made in order to "condemn the unacceptable step taken by the Belarusian authorities". Prior to this summons, the Czech Foreign Minister had summoned the ambassador to convey "his strong protest" at the arrest.  

This attack on freedom of expression in Belarus comes on top of multiple attacks on both local and international journalists in the country. According to Amnesty International, "journalists are being targeted for exposing crimes committed by the Belarusian authorities against their own population, in a blatant violation of the right to freedom of expression. The government has even shut down the internet to prevent people from sharing information".

Amnesty International's director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Marie Struthers, stressed that "it is frightening to see how far the government is prepared to go to suppress this information: attacking journalists with truncheons and rubber bullets, destroying their equipment and imprisoning dozens of journalists". In this vein, the Belarusian Association of Journalists has reported the arrest of at least 55 journalists, in addition to the detention of thousands of protesters.

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AFP/ JOE KLAMAR - Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya

According to the 2021 barometer published by Reporters Without Borders, 322 journalists are already imprisoned worldwide, in addition to 101 Internet users imprisoned along with 13 collaborators. In addition, the recent murders of journalists David Beriain and Roberto Fraile have increased the number of murders of media professionals worldwide by eight in 2021.