Belorussian Oppositionist Got Detained while Flying Over Belarus to Vilnius

On the afternoon of May 23, a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk.

Roman Protasevich, the former editor-in-chief of the Nexta telegram service (the most popular oppositionist news source for Belorus based in Poland). He was on the way for a business trip concerning another news channel criticizing the current political regime. 

Protasevich had discovered that he was being tracked before the flight, according to Nexta. Passengers were removed from the plane and transported to the airport in Minsk for a second inspection, during which Protasevich was detained.

They said that the Ryanair plane landed after receiving a signal about a bomb planted, and that the pilots had ordered the landing. At the same time, Lina Beishene, the head of the Vilnius International Airport’s communications department (where the flight was scheduled to arrive), said: “As far as I know, there was a misunderstanding between the crew member and the passenger.” The plane has now safely landed. Other than that, we don’t have any official information.” 

According to Nexta, KGB officers staged a battle with the crew during the flight, insisting that there was an explosive device on board, according to preliminary details. The crew was forced to request an emergency landing as a result.

Immediately after the flight landed, the “Pool of the First” telegram channel, which is similar to Alexander Lukashenko’s press service, published a controversial post with the headline “Belarus defended Europe.” 

Following protests against Alexander Lukashenko, the Nexta and Nexta Live channels gained popularity in Belarus. More than two million people have signed up for major street protests since they began in August 2020. The Belarusian KGB added Roman Protasevich and Nexta founder Stepan Putilo to a list of people involved in terrorist activities in November 2020. Belorussian Nexta and its logo are now considered extremist content by the government. 

Following Protasevich’s arrest, word spread on social media that he was facing the death penalty in Belarus. Terrorist offences are punishable by up to the death penalty in the country, but Protasevich has not been charged with terrorism yet. Simultaneously, Belarus’ Investigative Committee charged the journalists with planning mass protests in Minsk and “inciting racial hatred” towards officials and police officers. 

According to Belarusian state television, the plane had to do an emergency landing not because of Protasevich’s actions, but because of a friend who took a picture of him on the bus.  

Response of the West (EU and USA)

The plane incident will be discussed on the EU summit’s agenda. President of the European Council, Charles Michel, made sure the issue receives wide coverage. A ban on flights over Belarus, a ban on Belavia flights to EU airports, and personal penalties against those involved in the plane landing are all possible outcomes of the discussion. AirBaltic has already started to alter its flight routes to avoid flying over Belarusian territory.

The US State Department issued a statement condemning the incident. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken described the incident as “a shocking act of the regime that put the lives of 120 passengers in jeopardy.” In connection with the incident, the Lithuanian police opened an official investigation into the hijacking of an aircraft and the unlawful detention of citizens under two articles of the Criminal Code.