MOSCOW—Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian president of Belarus, has ordered arrests of key opponents for decades. But even after a brutal and bloody crackdown on opposition protests last year, his decision on Sunday to force an airliner to land so a prominent activist and reporter could be arrested appalled his domestic critics and European leaders alike.
A Belarusian MIG-29 military jet forced a Ryanair passenger plane heading from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk airport, where police arrested one of the passengers, a skinny young man. A bomb alert was the official reason for diverting the plane, but nobody in Belarusian opposition had doubts about the real reason behind the special operation: the arrest of 26-year old activist and journalist Roman Protasevich, the founder of a popular NEXTA Telegram channel read by more than four million people.
Months of extreme pressure on Belarusian journalists intensified last week with raids on the office of the well-known news website Tut.by, violent interrogations, and the arrests of eight other editors and journalists in Minsk. Authorities are accusing Protasevich of organizing opposition rallies in 2020, as well as of “inciting social enmity.” Protasevich is facing up to 12 years in prison, but his colleagues are worried for his life.
The journalist’s close friend, human rights defender Ayona Maslyukova, broke into tears when she heard the news of the arrest in the airport. “They are going to torture him, beat him—I have seen many victims with bruised legs and lower backs, some were raped in jail,” Maslyukova told The Daily Beast, sobbing.
Maslyukova and her colleagues at the Minsk-based human right center Vesna have been monitoring thousands of arrests and human rights violations since opposition riots erupted in Belarus last August. But the arrest of Protasevich broke her heart. “I have known him as the most professional, honest and devoted reporter since 2014. Now he might face many years in prison or even a death penalty, which is just terror. The world should pay attention to this horror,” Maslyukova added.
Before his flight, Protasevich had noticed a strange passenger with a leather case next to him in line at passport control in the airport in Athens on Sunday morning. The stranger tried to photograph Protasevich’s passport then turned around and left. The journalist described what happened in his Belarus Golovnogo Mozga blog, the second largest Telegram channel in the country.
“The fact that the military dictator Lukashenko ordered to land a Ryanair passenger plane with the help of Belarusian air forces is one more evidence of Belarus is violating international law, putting lives of passengers at risk,” a Belarusian diplomat Pavel Latushko told Protasevich’s colleagues at the blog.
Dmitry Solovyev, a human rights defender at Vesna, says that there are currently 405 political prisoners in Belarus. Solovyev has tried to leave the country after police severely beat him in his apartment, damaging his spine in March. “Several officers of special services turned me back in the airport, I was not able to catch my flight to Poland, where I was planning to have medical treatment,” Solovyev told The Daily Beast. “I hope they will not torture Roman.”
Leaders of Greece, France, Poland and Baltic countries expressed anger at Lukashenko’s actions on Sunday. British politician Tom Tugendhat said that “forcing an aircraft to land to silence opposition voices is an attack on democracy. The President of Lithuania, Gitanas Nauseda, demanded on Twitter that Protasevich be freed: “Unprecedented event! Regime is behind the abhorrent action.”
In a statement, Ryanair said the flight landed after being “notified of a potential security threat,” and that “(n)othing untoward was found and authorities cleared the aircraft to depart with passengers and crew.” The statement made no mention of Protasevich, the passenger who remained behind when the aircraft departed.
Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhonovskaya demanded the immediate release of the journalist: “He faces the death penalty in Belarus. Lukashenko’s regime endangered the lives of passengers onboard the plane. From now on, no one flying over Belarus can be secure.”