Western outrage grew and the European Union threatened more sanctions on Monday over the forced diversion of a plane to Belarus that ended with the arrest of an opposition journalist. The dramatic move, apparently ordered by the country’s authoritarian president to suppress dissent, was denounced as piracy, a hijacking and terrorism.
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 of 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-century.
The goal was seemingly the arrest of Raman Pratasevich, a 26-year-old activist and journalist who ran a popular messaging app that played a key role in helping organize massive protests against the authoritarian leader.
He and his Russian girlfriend were led off the plane shortly after landing, and authorities haven’t said where they’re being held. The plane, which began its journey in Athens, was eventually allowed to continue on to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.
Pratasevich appears on video
On Monday night, Belarusian state television showed a brief video of Pratasevich, in which he said he was giving evidence about organizing mass disturbances to investigators. Seated at a table with his hands folded in front of him and speaking rapidly, Pratasevich said he was in satisfactory health and said his treatment in custody was “maximally correct and according to law.”
U.S. President Joe Biden was briefed on the incident and National Security adviser Jake Sullivan raised the issue in his call with the secretary of the Russian Security Council, said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. She said the administration condemned what she called the “shocking act” of diverting a flight to detain a journalist.
“It constitutes a brazen affront to international peace and security by the regime. We demand an immediate international, transparent and credible investigation of this incident,” she said, adding the U.S. was in touch with NATO, the EU, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, among others about next steps.
The bloc summoned Belarus’s ambassador “to condemn the inadmissible step of the Belarusian authorities” and said in a statement the arrest was yet again “another blatant attempt to silence all opposition voices in the country.”
Pratasevich left Belarus in 2019 and had been living in Poland as recently as November. He had reportedly moved recently to Vilnius.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda urged the EU to take “clear actions in order to change the pattern of behaviour of this very dangerous regime” and said a previously planned EU summit on Monday would assess whether to close its airspace to Belarus carriers, declare Belarusian airspace unsafe and expand sanctions against Lukashenko’s government.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the “unprecedented action” of the Belarusian authorities and demanded that Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, be released immediately.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said that “the scandalous incident in Belarus shows signs of state terrorism, and it’s unbelievable.”
Belarus signs new anti-media law
The Lukashenko government signed a law on Monday 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 unauthorized 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 aren’t authorized by the government.
“This is the most repressive media law in Europe, which turns the work of journalists in Belarus into a minefield,” said Andrei Bastunets, president of the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
Action amounts to ‘hijacking,’ EU says
Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin told broadcaster RTE that the Ryanair episode “reflects growing authoritarianism across the world.”
“These authoritarian figures taking pre-meditated decisions of this kind…. We have to respond very strong to it,” he said.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen earlier said it amounted to a “hijacking.”
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 Belarusian airspace, and Lithuania’s government said it would instruct all flights to and from the Baltic country to avoid Belarus starting Tuesday.
British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he instructed the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority “to request airlines avoid Belarusian airspace in order to keep passengers safe.” He added he was suspending the permit allowing Belavia Belarusian Airlines to operate in the U.K.
The United States and the EU have already imposed sanctions on top Belarusian officials amid months of protests, which were triggered by Lukashenko’s re-election to a sixth presidential term in an August 2020 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.”
It ordered all Latvian diplomats out of the country after the Belarusian flag was replaced on Monday with the white-red-and-white one used by the opposition at the world ice hockey championship in Riga, Latvia. Minsk was to host the event, but it was relocated to Latvia amid the international outcry over the crackdown on protests.
Lufthansa said a flight from Minsk to Frankfurt with 51 people aboard was delayed on Monday following a “security warning.” It was eventually allowed to depart after authorities searched the plane, put passengers through another security check and unloaded all luggage and freight.
Conflicting reports over diversion
On Sunday, flight tracker sites indicated the Ryanair plane was about 10 kilometres from the Lithuanian border when it was diverted. There have been conflicting reports of what exactly happened.
The press service of 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 said 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 CEO, 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.
In an apparent reference to the Belarusian security agency that still goes under its Soviet-era name KGB, O’Leary said he believes “some KGB agents offloaded from the aircraft” in Minsk.
Faces 15 years in prison
Passengers described Pratasevich’s shock when he realized 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,” Rutkauskas said.
Pratasevich was a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app’s Nexta channel, which played a prominent role in helping organize major protests against 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 organizing demonstrations and offered advice on how to dodge police cordons. It has also run photos, video and other materials documenting the brutal police crackdown on the protests.
The Belarusian authorities have labelled the channel “extremist” and levelled charges of inciting mass riots and fanning social hatred against Pratasevich, who could face 15 years in prison if convicted.