Roman Protasevich | Plucked from the sky

The dissident journalist was arrested after his plane was force-landed in Minsk

Updated - May 30, 2021 12:56 pm IST

Published - May 30, 2021 12:30 am IST

Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

On May 23, Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old Belarussian journalist, boarded a Ryanair flight from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, with his girlfriend Sofia Sapega (23), a Russian law student. On that Sunday morning, Mr. Protasevich had an uneasy sense that something was amiss, that perhaps he was under surveillance, but there wasn’t much he could have done. The flight, with 123 passengers on board, was scheduled to land in Vilnius in two hours and 50 minutes. But it would only reach its destination more than seven hours later, with six passengers missing.

When the plane was over Belarussian air space, flight controllers informed the pilot that there was a bomb threat. They ordered him to make an emergency landing in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. When the pilot hesitated, a MiG fighter jet was despatched to “escort” the aircraft to Minsk — though at the time of diversion it was closer to Vilnius than to Minsk. When the plane landed, KGB agents — the Belarussian secret service still goes by the old Soviet name — whisked away Mr. Protasevich and Ms. Sapega. After an interminable wait, the flight finally took off for Vilnius without Mr. Protasevich, Ms. Sapega, and four suspected KGB agents who had boarded the plane in Athens.

It has since emerged that the ‘bomb threat’ — the ostensible reason for the emergency landing — was a ruse to divert the aircraft so that the Belarussian regime could arrest Mr. Protasevich, a prominent dissident. Reacting sharply to what has been described as a “state-sponsored hijacking”, the European Union has banned Belarussian airlines from EU air space while ordering EU-based airlines to boycott Belarussian air space. Economic sanctions are likely to follow.

The whole operation was carried out on the orders of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 27 years. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mr. Lukashenko became the first President of independent Belarus in 1994. He has been “re-elected” six times. His victory in the most recent elections, held last year, provoked mass protests, with Opposition leaders claiming electoral fraud. Mr. Lukashenko unleashed a brutal crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested, media muzzled, and Opposition activists either jailed or driven to exile in neighbouring Lithuania or Poland. Mr. Protasevich has been active in anti-Lukashenko politics since his teens, going to jail at the age of 17. After studying at the Institute of Journalism at the Belarussian State University, he worked as a news photographer. In 2019, fearing for his life, he took political asylum in Poland. He started working for Warsaw-based Nexta, a Belarussian news channel on the Telegram platform. He has been instrumental in documenting and sharing with the world the protest movement against Mr. Lukashenko following his contested electoral victory in 2020 and the regime’s repression of dissent.

Peaceful protests

Mr. Protasevich’s channel also helped in organising peaceful demonstrations against the Lukashenko regime by sharing details such as the date and time of protest meetings. His visit to Athens was for an economic conference where he also met Belarus’s Opposition leader and Lukashenko’s erstwhile opponent in the Presidential elections, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has acknowledged Nexta’s role in coordinating peaceful protests. It was for all these activities that Belarus last November branded Mr. Protasevich a ‘terrorist’ and issued a warrant for his arrest.

Following his mid-sky capture, and in what has become standard procedure followed by the Lukashenko regime to discredit its critics, Belarussian authorities put out a video that shows Mr. Protasevich ‘confessing’ to his role in organising “mass riots” in Minsk. His family members say he has been coerced into it, and point to the bruises on his face. In another video, Ms. Sapega, who is not known to have been politically active, is seen ‘confessing’ to running a Telegram channel that “publishes personal information about officers in the Interior Ministry”.

Mr. Protasevich’s detention has provoked international outrage. Western governments, including the U.S., have called for his immediate release and an international probe into the “hijacking”. Belarus, however, seems unlikely to yield, given the backing it enjoys from Russia. For the Kremlin, Belarus is a critical counterweight against what it views as Western overreach in Ukraine and Crimea, a region it considers as part of its traditional sphere of influence. This instance of Belarus violating international law and civil aviation norms to silence a dissident is expected to further alienate Belarus from the West and tighten Russia’s grip over a country ruled by a man often described as ‘Europe’s last dictator’. As for Protasevich, under Belarussian law, he faces 10-15 years in jail, if not the death penalty.

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