Lukashenko forces the diversion of a commercial flight to arrest a journalist critical of the regime

The Belarusian authorities detained the journalist Roman Protasevich, persecuted by Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime, this Sunday at the Minsk airport after the plane in which he was traveling was forced to make an emergency landing in the Belarusian capital. The Ryanair aircraft, which was flying over Belarus en route to Lithuania from Greece, received a bomb threat, according to the Minsk airport spokeswoman. The plane, a Boeing 737, was escorted to the ground by a fighter jet on the direct order of the Belarusian president, according to his press service. On the ground, the Belarusian special services have not found explosives in the device. Ryanair has confirmed in a statement that it was the Belarusian authorities who notified it of a “potential security threat” on board.

The opposition leader Svetlana Tijanóvskaya has denounced the “kidnapping” of the journalist and the aircraft, in which 170 passengers from 12 countries flew, who are now waiting in Minsk, as explained by the Lithuanian authorities. The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has defined what happened as “unacceptable” and has demanded that the plane be directed immediately to Vilnius. Also the President of Lithuania, Gitanas Nauseda, has described the event as “abominable” and “unprecedented” and has asked NATO and the European Union to react to the threat posed to civil aviation by the diversion under these circumstances of a flight of a European airline that covered the route between two capitals of the EU. The president believes that the bomb threat was a ruse to force the plane to land and detain the informant, and has demanded his immediate release.

Protasevich, 26, was a director and one of the founders of Nexta and Nexta Live, two well-known and influential Telegram channels (with more than 1.2 million subscribers) based in Poland, much followed by the opposition during the protests by democracy and against Lukashenko last summer in Belarus, who have been labeled “extremist.” The journalist, who lived in exile, is accused of “organizing riots and collective actions that seriously violate public order” and “committing deliberate actions designed to incite social enmity”; crimes that can carry up to 15 years in prison. The Belarusian secret services (KGB, Belarus is the only country that retains the old Soviet name of the agency) included him last November in the list of people involved in terrorist activities.

The reporter was arrested upon landing in Minsk, as confirmed by the department against organized crime of the Interior Ministry on its official Telegram channel in a post that it deleted a few minutes later. Afterwards, he has avoided making new comments on the case. The Belarusian Journalists Association and the local human rights organization Viasna have confirmed the arrest of the informant, but have not been able to contact him, according to a note. Protasevich, who was in Athens to follow Svetlana Tijanóvskaya’s visit to Greece, had told a friend this morning, before taking off, that he noticed how a man who spoke Russian was following him through the airport and that he had even tried to take pictures of his documents in the queue to board from behind.

The Ryanair plane, a Boeing 737-8AS, in which Protasevich was traveling, at Minsk airport, where it made an emergency landing this Sunday. – / AFP

Tijanóvskaya has denounced what he considers an operation of the Belarusian secret services and has called for new measures against the Belarusian president, who has been in power for more than 26 years. “The Lukashenko regime endangered the lives of the passengers on board the plane. As of now, no one who flies over Belarus, can be sure. An international reaction is needed! ”, Wrote on social networks the opposition, who faced Lukashenko in the presidential elections last August that unleashed massive protests against fraud after the Belarusian leader claimed victory with 80% of the votes. Tijanóvskaya had to leave Belarus last August, shortly after the elections, after receiving threats against her family and has settled in Vilnius.

The opposition leader has asked the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to investigate the incident on Ryanair flight FR4978. “From now on, any citizen of any country flying over Belarus has no basic security guarantees,” he said from Vilnius.

The opposition warns about what happened to the Ryanair plane this Sunday as a new move by Lukashenko and another and unprecedented step in his repressive policy against dissent. The EU is closely monitoring developments in the situation around the Ryanair aircraft. The president of the European Commission has demanded security for all passengers, according to a message on social networks. “Any violation of international air transport should have consequences,” he insisted. The high representative for EU Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell, has declared that what happened is “unacceptable”: “We place the responsibility for the safety of all passengers on the flight on the Belarusian authorities,” he tweeted. Also Charles Michel, the head of the European Council, has been very concerned about what happened, has asked Minsk for explanations and has demanded that “all” the passengers of the diverted flight continue their journey. “The investigation of the incident by the International Civil Aviation Organization will be of primary importance,” he remarked.

The arrest of Protasevich and the circumstances in which it occurred, has also outraged the Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, who has asked the European Council to discuss new sanctions against Lukashenko’s circle. Germany has demanded from the Belarusian government an “immediate explanation” of what happened, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Miguel Berguer, has claimed.

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