European leaders were quick to criticize Belarus after it was accused of essentially hijacking a passenger plane and forcing it to land in the country’s capital in order to arrest an opposition journalist. It all took place in a dramatic series of events that seemed to come straight out of a movie script. It all began when Roman Protasevich, an opposition journalist who ran the popular social media Telegram channel Nexta, was getting ready to board a Ryanair plane in Athens to go to Lithuania and realized he was being photographed by people who looked suspicious. Protasevich said in his Telegram channel that he felt he was under surveillance.
As soon as the plane entered Belarusian airspace those who had been taking photographs got into a fight with the crew of the plane and insisted there was an explosive device on board. A fighter jet then escorted the plane to Minsk airport, at which point officials boarded the plane and arrested Protasevich.
After a few hours in Minsk, the plane continued on its journey without Protasevich. Ryanair issued a statement saying that Belarus authorities had informed the crew “of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.” In the end, no explosives were found. It was Belarus’ strongman president Alexander Lukashenko, often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator,” who ordered the fighter jet to escort the Ryanair plan to the Minsk airport due to the bomb threat, according to government-controlled press service.
European leaders were quick to criticize the move and warned of consequences. “Hijacking of a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism. It cannot go unpunished,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki wrote on Twitter. Morawiecki said he would call for fresh sanctions against Belarus in an already scheduled European Council meeting on Monday. Lithuania, a member of the European Union and the country where Protasevich is based, called on the Euroepan Union and NATO to take action against what it described as an “unprecedented attack against the international community.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that it was “a serious & dangerous incident” that “requires international investigation.” Some leaders in Europe warned that if there is no response to the action by Belarus, all European journalists can be at risk. “If aircraft can be forced to the ground … in order to punish the political opponents of tyrants, then journalists here in the UK, politicians anywhere in Europe will find it harder to speak out,” Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the UK foreign affairs select committee, said
It wasn’t just European leaders who expressed concern about the series of events. The International Civil Aviation Organization, which is part of the United Nations, said it was “strongly concerned” by the series of events. The incident “could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention,” the agency said in a tweet in reference to the 1944 accord that laid out the principles for international air travel.
Protasevich, 26, has been living in Lithuania in exile as he feared prosecution in a country that has accused him of inciting hatred and mass disorder, which means he could face more than a decade in prison. Some of his allies say he could face the death penalty. His arrest shows just how far Lukashenko is willing to go to target his political opponents with the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Lukashenko has been in power since 1994 and constantly targets anyone who dares speak up against his regime. He won elections last year that were widely condemned as rigged, which led to months of protests that resulted in a strong crackdown and persecution of opposition leaders.