INTERNATIONAL – Belarusian opposition activist Roman Protassevich lived through long minutes of anguish when he realized the Ryanair flight he was on was going to be diverted to Minsk, where he would be arrested soon after, others testified passengers on the flight.
“He started to panic and say it was because of him,” Lithuanian 40-year-old Monika Simkiene told AFP when the flight finally landed as planned in Vilnius, several hours late.
“He just turned to people and said he risked the death penalty,” she continued, noting that he seemed “very calm” once certain of his arrest after arriving in. Minsk. He was “nervous at first, but then he realized there was nothing he could do about it, he calmed down and accepted it,” said another passenger, who presented himself under the sole name of Mantas.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte went to Vilnius airport to welcome the plane, as did several dozen Belarusian opposition activists. Some carried flags in the colors of the Belarusian opposition on their shoulders and others carried signs proclaiming “I am / We are Roman Protassevich”, or even “Ryanair, where is Roman?”
“If the porthole had been opened …”
Belarus forced the plane, which was on the Athens-Vilnius route, to land in Minsk and arrested Protassevich, who is facing several charges for his involvement in opposition to President Alexander Lukashenko.
Roman Protassevich, 26, is the former editor-in-chief of the influential Belarusian opposition media Nexta and resides in Poland. In November, the Belarusian security services (KGB), inherited from the Soviet period, had registered his name and that of the founder of Nexta, Stepan Poutilo, on the list of “individuals involved in terrorist activities”.
Nexta played a key role in the recent wave of protests against the 2020 re-election of President Lukashenko, who has held the post since 1994. The activist’s arrest sparked outrage from Western countries and NATO, and the European Union waved the threat of further sanctions against Belarus.
Some passengers say they saw the young opponent empty his bags and hand things over to his partner when he was sure the plane was going to stop in Minsk. According to a 25-year-old French passenger, Arthur Six, the opponent “panicked but calmed down after that”. “He wasn’t screaming, but it was obvious that he was very scared. It looked like if the window had been opened, it would have jumped, ”added another passenger, Edvinas Dimsa, 37 years old.
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