Monday , June 14 2021
Belarus Scrambles Jet to Force Down Plane Carrying Dissident

Belarus Scrambles Jet to Force Down Plane Carrying Dissident

MOSCOW — Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the brutal and erratic president of Belarus, scrambled a fighter jet on Sunday to force a commercial plane carrying a prominent opposition journalist to land in the capital, Minsk, in order to arrest him.

Roman Protasevich, 26, was traveling aboard a Ryanair flight that was forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk while flying over Belarus. The plane was carrying some 170 people of at least 18 nationalities from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, officials said.

Both Lithuania and Greece are members of the European Union. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Comission, sharply criticized the action as “utterly unacceptable” and demanded that the passengers be allowed to continue on to Vilnius. The plane was still in Minsk on Sunday night but was said to be preparing to leave after passengers cleared security.

The action also drew fierce criticism from Lithuania’s president, Gitanas Nausėda, who called it “abhorrent” in his Twitter account and demanded that the Belarusian authorities release Mr. Protasevich.

The Belarusian authorities said they took the action after receiving information about a bomb threat on board, and did so even though Vilnius, the plane’s final destination, was much closer than Minsk when it was forced down. Mr. Lukashenko and his government are known to use ruses to pursue their political opponents.

Belarus’s presidential news service said in a statement that Mr. Lukashenko personally ordered a MiG-29 to escort the Ryanair plane to the Minsk airport. According to the statement, Mr. Lukashenko gave an “unequivocal order” to “make the plane do a U-turn and land.”

The country’s Defense Ministry said in another statement that the country’s air defense forces were put on high alert.

Ryanair officials were not immediately available to comment about the incident.

Upon the plane’s arrival in Minsk, Mr. Protasevich was arrested, the country’s interior ministry said in a statement that was later deleted from its official Telegram channel. No bomb was found on board, the Minsk airport’s news service said, according to Mlyn.by, a local news website. Mr. Protasevich is a co-founder and a former editor of the NEXTA Telegram channel, one of the most popular opposition outlets in Belarus, where most independent media organizations were forced to shut down following large-scale protests that convulsed the nation following a disputed presidential election in 2020.

Over the past few years, Mr. Protasevich has been living in Lithuania in exile, fearing imprisonment in Belarus, his home country, where he is accused of inciting hatred and mass disorder and faces more than 12 years in prison if convicted. In November, the country’s main security service, still called the K.G.B., put Mr. Protasevich on its list of terrorists.

Mr. Protasevich’s arrest comes months after the biggest wave of street protests in the history of Belarus failed to depose Mr. Lukashenko, who has been ruling the country with an iron fist for over 26 years.

More than 32,000 protesters were arrested and at least four died during the protests. Hundreds were brutally beaten by the police. NEXTA emerged as the leading outlet coordinating the demonstrations.

Backed by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and using violence unseen in Europe for decades, Mr. Lukashenko managed to successfully crack down on protesters, with the country’s security apparatus remaining loyal to him.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Mr. Lukashenko’s main opponent during the last presidential election in August, which was widely regarded as rigged, called the episode with the Ryanair flight “an operation by the special services to hijack an aircraft in order to detain activist and blogger Roman Protasevich.”

“Not a single person who flies over Belarus can be sure of his safety,” she said.



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