May 24, 2021

Press freedom advocates and human rights groups overnight expressed outrage and called for the immediate release of journalist Raman Pratasevich after the government of Belarus on Sunday scrambled a military fighter jet in its airspace to intercept a commercial aircraft and then arrested the well-known dissident news editor who was on the flight traveling from Athens, Greece to Vilnius, Lithuania.

According to the Washington Post:

Mere minutes before the Ryanair flight was to exit Belarusian airspace and cross into Lithuania, its crew received an order from Belarus's air traffic control to turn around because of possible explosives on board. A Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet scrambled to escort the Boeing 737-8AS to Minsk, although the aircraft was at that point much closer to Vilnius.

The Belarusian opposition said the supposed bomb scare was a pretext for the real reason strongman President Alexander Lukashenko ordered the plane carrying 123 passengers to land: the arrest of [Pratasevich], an opposition journalist on board.

Pratasevich is the former editor-in-chief the popular NEXTA news channel on Telegram which is widely consumed by Belarusians both inside and outside of the country opposed to the Lukashenko government.

Marie Struthers, Amnesty International's Eastern Europe and Central Asia director, said there was no doubt that the threat of a bomb on board was a ruse created by the Lukashenko government in order to get their hands on Pratasevich.

"The situation here is simple," said Struthers in a statement. "There is little doubt that the Belarusian authorities used a false bomb threat and a MiG fighter jet to force an airplane flying from one country of the European Union to another to land with the apparent sole purpose of detaining an exiled critical journalist whom they badly wanted silenced."

While the dramatics of the arrest "sounds like an extraordinary Hollywood plot," she added, "the reality of this apparent act of air piracy is chilling." Struthers said the European Union and other world leaders must "react without delay" as Amnesty called for the journalist's immediate release.

Arrested off the plane in Minsk, Pratasevich faces up to 12 years in prison under the terrorism charges levied against him with some fearing, including Pratasevich himself, that he could possibly face the death penalty. As the New York Times reports:

After the plane was diverted to Minsk, Mr. Protasevich, 26, turned to fellow passengers "and said he was facing the death penalty," one passenger, Monika Simkiene, told Agence France-Presse in Vilnius.
"He was not screaming, but it was clear that he was very much afraid," another passenger, Edvinas Dimsa, recalled, according to AFP. "It looked like if the window had been open, he would have jumped out of it."

Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said his organization was "shocked" by Sunday's events even as he noted Belarus's intensifying belligerence towards media critical of its rule.

"Lukashenko's government has increasingly strangled the press in Belarus for the past year, detaining, fining, and expelling journalists and sentencing them to longer and longer prison terms," declared Said. "We call on Belarusian authorities to immediately release Raman Pratasevich and for European leaders to respond forcefully to this violation of international norms."

Christophe Deloire, Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), said the actions of Belarus could not be overstated.

"What happened may seem extravagant, in reality it is extremely serious," Deloire tweeted Sunday. "Hijacking a plane to arrest a journalist is pushing state treachery to the extreme. We expect from the international community sanctions commensurate with this perfidy."

Lukshenko also received strong reaction from government leaders worldwide and across the European Union, with Greece's Foreign Minister calling it a "state hijacking" and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen saying "the outrageous and illegal behavior of the regime in Belarus will have consequences."

Republished from Common Dreams (Jon Queally, staff writer) under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

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