On May 24, Belarus’s authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko managed to arrest journalist Roman Protasevich allegedly on the pretext of a bomb scare. His regime forced Ryanair’s flight from Greece to Lithuania to divert to Belarus’s capital Minsk. The flight was about to land in Vilnius, Lithuania, when the pilots received a bomb threat alert at around 12:50 PM local time. While Belarus claimed it was the pilot’s decision to divert the flight to Minsk, Ryanair said that the decision came from Belarusian air traffic controllers.
Belarus sent a MIG-29 to escort the plane
Soon after the flight diverted to Minsk, Belarus scrambled a MIG-29 fighter jet to escort the plane to land in Minsk. According to the press release issued by President’s office, the orders directly came from the President “make the plane do a U-turn and land and approved dispatching the fighter plane.”
Ryanair Flight 4978 had already begun its descent into the Lithuanian capital when the pilot announced that the plane would be suddenly diverting to Minsk, capital of neighboring Belarus.— Reuters (@Reuters) May 24, 2021
There was no explanation https://t.co/eNBa3QO49B 1/5 pic.twitter.com/AswBJ1XWSc
When to pilot announced that the plane would be landing in Belarus, the expressions on Protasevich’s face changed quickly, as noticed by the fellow passengers. He was visibly worried for his safety and reportedly begged the attendants not to divert the flight to Belarus as he was facing the death penalty in his native country. The attendant, however, expressed an inability to help him.
The scene inside the plane was tense
Protasevich knew his time was up, so he started preparing for the arrest after landing. Based on the ordeal of several passengers, he reportedly grabbed his belongings and handed over the laptop and phone to his girlfriend, who was sitting next to him on the plane. “He seemed scared. You looked at him and thought: ‘Something is going on with him,” said a passenger.
But one of the passengers, Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, reacted immediately, standing up from his seat, reaching into the overhead locker, pulling a laptop computer from his hand luggage and passing it to a woman along with his mobile phone 2/5 pic.twitter.com/ch2QvTV0dX— Reuters (@Reuters) May 24, 2021
The passengers were getting information on SMS from the airlines about the diversion, but no one told them what was happening. In its statement, the airlines said that its crew was “notified by Belarus (Air Traffic Control) of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.”
The stage was ready at Minsk airport
The stage for the arrest of Protasevich was all set at Minsk airport. The passengers were asked not to move after landing. A team of patrol guards was ready outside with dogs. They were brought inside the plane for a security check. The passengers were escorted after an hour of landing to a waiting room where they were held for checking. As per reports, they were not allowed to leave the room even to go to the loo.
While speaking to The Guardian, a passenger described being stripped of his boots and searched all over by hand said, “It was very unpleasant experience.” Protasevich was immediately separated on arrival in Minsk. He was searched separately from the fellow passengers. After a bit of explanation of what was happening, he was taken away by the security personnel.
Protasevich, 26, was immediately separated on arrival in Minsk. The European Union called for Protasevich’s immediate release, with the head of the EU’s executive European Commission and the Polish prime minister describing the incident as a hijacking https://t.co/eNBa3QO49B 5/5— Reuters (@Reuters) May 24, 2021
Lithuania’s defense minister Arvydas Anusauskas said in a statement that the girlfriend of Protasevich and four other passengers were not allowed to reboard.
Roman Protasevich’s ‘confession’
On Monday, a video was circulated on state tv channel where Protasevich can be heard ‘confessing’ that he had organised mass unrest in Minsk. “I am in Detention Centre no 1 in Minsk. I can say that I have no health problems, including with my heart or any other organs,” he could be heard saying. He was seen wearing a black hoodie and some dark markings are visible on his forehead.
“The attitude of employees towards me is as correct as possible and according to the law. I continue cooperating with investigators and am confessing to having organised mass unrest in the city of Minsk,” he said.
Protasevich had reportedly organised protests against Alexander Lukashenko, the President who has ruled Belarus for over two decades. Lukashenko recently secured a landslide victory in elections. The opposition had said that the elections were rigged. Subsequently, his administration cracked down on the dissenting protestors
World leaders react to the arrest
The world leaders reacted strongly against Belarus government for the incident. Gitanas Nauseda, President, Lithuania, slammed Belarus’s President and called the act a “state-sponsored terror act.” He said he would propose the European Council ban Belarusian planes from European Union airports and impose serious sanctions against the Lukashenko regime.
🇪🇺 leaders will discuss a state-sponsored terror act in #Minsk tomorrow at #EUCO. My suggestions: airspace over 🇧🇾 shall be recognized unsafe, 🇧🇾 aircrafts shall not be accepted in 🇪🇺 airports, immediate investigation by @icao & serious sanctions against the regime.— Gitanas Nausėda (@GitanasNauseda) May 23, 2021
Gabrielius Landsbergis, foreign minister, Lithuania, said, “Belarusian airspace is completely unsafe for any commercial flight, and it should be deemed this not only by the EU but by the international community. Because now, this instrument could be used for any plane crossing Belarusian airspace.”
Ingrida Simonyte, Prime Minister, Lithuania, said, “This is the act of state terrorism directed against the security of citizens of the #EU and other countries.”
She further added, “Lithuania urges int. community to ban Belarus airspace for civil aviation, toughen sanctions on Lukashenka regime, demand release of Raman Protasevich and all political prisoners in Belarus, and strengthen support to Belarusians fighting for freedom!”
Dissident leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said, “Lukashenka’s regime must take full responsibility and face punishment for hijacking the civilian plane this Sunday. They try to justify themselves now, but no one believes the regime’s words. It proved long ago that lies and speculations are the basis of its’ existence.”
Lukashenka’s regime must take full responsibility and face punishment for hijacking the civilian plane this Sunday. They try to justify themselves now, but no one believes the regime’s words. It proved long ago that lies and speculations are the basis of its’ existence. pic.twitter.com/V9wixvGlEg— Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (@Tsihanouskaya) May 24, 2021
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Union Commission said, “We are closing our airspace to planes from Belarus and call on EU airlines not to fly over the country.” She further added, “Lukashenka and his regime will face severe consequences. We will keep pressure on the regime until it respects media freedom and freedom of opinion. Roman Pratasevich & Sofia Sapega must be released immediately.”
Lukashenka and his regime will face severe consequences.— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) May 24, 2021
We will keep pressure on the regime until it respects media freedom and freedom of opinion.
Roman Pratasevich & Sofia Sapega must be released immediately.
Belarus authorities are entirely responsible for their health.
Anthony Blinken, US Secretary of State, said, “We strongly condemn the Lukashenka regime’s brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist. We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on the next steps. The United States stands with the people of Belarus.”
We strongly condemn the Lukashenka regime’s brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist. We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps. The United States stands with the people of Belarus.— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) May 23, 2021
Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki Called for immediate sanctions against the Lukashenka regime. He said, “Hijacking a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism that cannot go unpunished.”
Zwróciłem się do Przewodniczącego @eucopresident o rozszerzenie agendy jutrzejszej Rady Europejskiej o punkt dot. natychmiastowych sankcji wobec reżimu A. Łukaszenki. Porwanie cywilnego samolotu to bezprecedensowy akt państwowego terroryzmu, który nie może pozostać bezkarny.— Mateusz Morawiecki (@MorawieckiM) May 23, 2021
Whereabouts of Protasevich and his girlfriend are unknown.