Updated at 14:39,28-10-2021

Belarus Faces Western Outrage Over Airliner 'Hijacking' To Detain Journalist

By RFE/RL with reporting by AFP, AP, Reuters, and RFE/RL's Belarus Service

Belarus Faces Western Outrage Over Airliner 'Hijacking' To Detain Journalist
Raman Pratasevich in a Minsk court in April 2017 on charges of participating in an unsanctioned protest. Photo: Reuters
European Union leaders, who are set to hold a summit on May 24, have warned of punitive steps against Belarus over the forced diversion and landing of a Ryanair plane to Minsk that was carrying a prominent opposition journalist on an internal EU flight.

Belarusian authorities scrambled a military jet to escort the civilian plane, which was en route to Vilnius from Athens on May 23, over what turned out to be a false bomb report. Once the plane landed, police detained Raman Pratasevich, a 26-year-old opposition activist and journalist who faces charges in Belarus that could bring 15 years in prison.

EU officials and several Western governments have condemned the incident as the state-sponsored hijacking of a commercial flight, with some calling for fresh sanctions against authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has led a crackdown on dissent in the country since a disputed presidential election last August.

Ryanair Chief Executive Officer Michael O'Leary said in an interview on Newstalk Radio on May 24 that the incident was a "state-sponsored hijacking."

"In carrying out this coercive act, the Belarusian authorities have jeopardized the safety of passengers and crew," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement on May 24 on behalf of the bloc, calling for an international investigation to “ascertain any breach of international aviation rules."

“This is yet another blatant attempt by the Belarusian authorities to silence all opposition voices. We call for the immediate release of Mr. Pratasevich,” he added.

A senior EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL that potential action may include suspending overflights of all EU airlines over Belarus, banning Belarus’s state airliner Belavia from landing at EU airports, and suspending transit from Belarus to the EU.

Belarus Faces Western Outrage Over Airliner 'Hijacking' To Detain Journalist

EU leaders are also expected to call for an investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which earlier described the incident as a possible violation of international air travel rules under the Chicago Convention.

Belarusian state news agency BelTA reported that Lukashenka had personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the plane to land in Minsk.

Officials later said no explosives were found on the plane. The RIA Novosti news agency reported on May 24 that Belarus could only give recommendations to the plane's crew on what to do and couldn't force the aircraft to land.

Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were immediately separated upon arrival in Minsk and taken away by police. Ryanair said the aircraft arrived safely in Vilnius after a delay of several hours. Their whereabouts remain unclear, but Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda told a news conference late on May 23 that Pratasevich's female companion had not reembarked to continue the flight from Minsk to Vilnius after the plane was cleared for travel.

“The outrageous and illegal behavior of the regime in Belarus will have consequences. Those responsible for the #Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned,” European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen wrote in a tweet.

Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the British parliament's foreign affairs committee, added that the incident was "an act of air-piracy, combined with hijacking, and eventually linked to kidnapping" and said that “very strict sanctions” should be imposed on the Lukashenka regime.

Denouncing Belarus’s “state-sponsored terror act,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called for “serious sanctions against the regime.”

The government in Ireland, where Ryanair is headquartered, described the incident as "absolutely unacceptable," and said that “EU inaction or indecision will be taken as weakness by Belarus.”

The EU has already imposed three rounds of sanctions against Belarus and was preparing a fourth round before the Ryanair event, including further asset freezes and visa bans on Belarusian officials and entities amid the ongoing crackdown on the opposition and pro-democracy protesters.

Belarus has been rocked by protests since Lukashenka, in power since 1994, was declared the landslide winner of a presidential election in August 2020 that the West and opposition deem fraudulent.

Since then, more than 30,000 people have been detained, hundreds beaten or tortured, and journalists targeted in the crackdown by Lukashenka, whose government has been hit by Western sanctions.

The diversion of the flight between two EU members and the detention of Pratasevich were also met by criticism from U.S. officials.

U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher called the forced landing of the plane an example of Lukashenka’s “contempt” for the international community.

“Faking a bomb threat and sending MiG-29s to force @RyanAir to Minsk in order to arrest a @Nexta journalist on politically motivated charges is dangerous and abhorrent,” she wrote on Twitter.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the United States supports an ICAO investigation and was closely coordinating a response with the EU, Lithuania, and Greece.

"The United States strongly condemns the forced diversion of a flight between two EU member states and the subsequent removal and arrest of journalist Raman Pratasevich in Minsk. We demand his immediate release," he said in a statement.

NATO called it a “serious and dangerous" incident and demanded an international investigation.

Pratasevich was a key administrator of the Telegram channel NEXTA Live, which has been covering the protests that broke out in Belarus following the country’s disputed presidential election last August.

Belarusian authorities in November 2020 launched investigations into Pratasevich and a colleague, Stsyapan Putsila, on suspicion of the organization of mass disorder, disruption of social order, and inciting social hatred.

"It is absolutely obvious that this is an operation of secret services to capture the plane in order to detain activist and blogger Raman Pratasevich," exiled opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya said on Telegram.

The opposition says that Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to neighboring Lithuania after the election due to concerns about her safety, was the true winner of last year's presidential vote.

Pratasevich was a 2017-18 Vaclav Havel Journalism fellow in Prague. The Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship -- a joint initiative of RFE/RL and the Czech Foreign Ministry -- is available to aspiring, independent journalists in the European Union's Eastern Partnership countries and Russia.

Pratasevich spoke to Current Time from an undisclosed location in Poland on November 19, 2020, after Belarusian authorities issued a warrant for his arrest.

"It seems to me that the [state] power now considers nearly any expression of a different opinion in general to be a crime,” Pratasevich said, saying this was clear from the number of people who were being detained. Current Time is a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

In October 2020, a court in Minsk designated the NEXTA Live channel and its logo as extremist and instructed the Information Ministry to restrict access to information resources using the name and logo of the Telegram channel, as well as their distribution in the Belarusian segment of the Internet.

Fearing prosecution, Pratasevich and Putsila fled the country and their whereabouts have not been known.

In October 2020, Putsila, along with several Belarusian activists, received the European Parliament's 2020 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

Media in Belarus have been targeted by the Lukashenka government in the ongoing crackdown. The watchdog Reporters Without Borders has designated Belarus as the most dangerous spot in Europe for journalists.