Pressure Steps Up Over Belarus “Hijack”

Journalist’s arrest puts protest movement back on international agenda.

Pressure Steps Up Over Belarus “Hijack”

Journalist’s arrest puts protest movement back on international agenda.

Roman Protasevich during his public address from the detention facility in Minsk.
Roman Protasevich during his public address from the detention facility in Minsk.
Wednesday, 26 May, 2021

Activists hope that international pressure will now result in serious political and economic isolation for Belarus after its authorities forced a plane to divert to Minsk to allow the detention of a prominent opposition activist.

Roman Protasevich, the former editor-in-chief of NEXTA, Belarus’ largest Telegram channel, was arrested at Minsk airport on May 23. His Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, was also detained.

His father Dmitry Protasevich told IWPR that the government’s claim of a terrorist threat to the plane had been ludicrous.

“This is a terrorist attack committed by the state,” he said. “It was a hostage-taking. Intelligence agencies, with approval of the country's leadership, committed actions that contradict all legal norms and rules.”

NEXTA played a key part of the uprising that followed the August 2020 elections in Belarus and one of the main sources providing news of the protests against President Alexander Lukashenko.

Three criminal cases had been launched against Protasevich due to his work with NEXTA, including charges of organising mass riots, which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison. Due to this, Protasevich and his family were living in Poland and Lithuania.

“We were so calm that Roman lived in the European Union,” his father said. “We were sure that nothing could threaten his safety.”

Those on the Athens-Vilnius Ryanair flight described scenes of chaos as the plane was forced to divert, accompanied by a Belarusian fighter jet.

Gintaras Mikalauskas, a doctor from Lithuania, told IWPR that the pilot initially announced that they would land in Vilnius in 15 minutes, before the plane performed a sharp turn in the air.

“It was scary, because no one told us what was going on,” he said. “The flight attendants were scared too and were running back and forth in the cabin. Then the captain announced that we were going to land in Minsk.”

Mikalauskas said that one passenger in particular had become especially agitated when the pilot announced the landing in Minsk. The flight attendants tried to calm him down and asked him to remain in his seat.

“We could all see that he was frightened. Then he took off his mask and said that soon we would learn from the news why the plane landed in Minsk,” Mikalauskas recalled.

He said that this passenger was the last to leave the plane and the only one asked by authorities to retrieve his belongings before he was taken away.

Although flight attendants told MIkalauskas that there had been a bomb threat, he said that the subsequent search of the plane did not seem to be a serious examination.

“It was like some kind of show,” he continued. “The servicemen were not wearing special uniforms in which sappers usually work. Everyone stood very close to the plane, passengers were taken out slowly.”

The passengers spent the next seven hours in Minsk under military guard.

“My wife and I have been traveling for 20 years and we have never been so scared as in Minsk,” Mikalauskas said, adding, “It was like going back to Soviet times. In Belarus the people are not just persecuted but this is done in such a brutal way – by hijacking the plane.”

On the evening of May 24, a video was released in which Protasevich said that he was being detained at a Minsk facility and cooperating with the investigation. The footage showed some scratches on his face, and his father said he believed he had been tortured.

“We are still very worried, because we don’t know what is going in with our son,” he said.

Andrei Kazakevich, director of the Political Sphere think tank, said that although Protasevich was not as high-profile as other opposition figures, his detention was nonetheless highly symbolic.

“After all, he was the editor of NEXTA, which was a personal insult and trauma for Lukashenko and the security forces. It was especially important for them to demonstrate the inevitability of punishment,” Kazakevich said.

Some pro-government figures within Belarus have not denied that the emergency landing was organised by the regime.

“The Belarusian special services have become key newsmakers for the second time in just a month. Disclosure of a conspiracy related to the coup attempt and now the arrest of the terrorist Protasevich. They work creatively by keeping on the best Soviet traditions,” analyst Alexey Dzermant wrote on his Facebook page.

Beyond this, state media in Belarus have barely mentioned the arrest, focusing on the Western reaction which Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei called "planned provocation".

Exiled Belarusian politicians condemned the regime’s actions and called on EU leaders and the US to further tighten economic sanctions against Minsk.

“The regime scrambled jet fighters and with the involvement of secret services organized the capture of an entire civilian plane in order to take Roman hostage,” said Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, the main opposition candidate in the disputed 2020 elections.  

The day after the arrest, a number of European countries banned their planes from flying over Belarus and refused the state carrier Belavia permission to operate in their countries. More serious economic and political sanctions are also being discussed.

“Financial losses can be significant,” said Kazakevich. “New sanctions are also possible. Belarus will not be seen in the world as a safe country.”

He said that it was unlikely that the leadership had foreseen such a strong reaction to their actions.

“I think it was a spontaneous operation and not one that was planned months earlier. They just received information that Roman was on that plane and the decision was made in a hurry,” Kazakevich said.

Dmitry Protasevich said he was surprised and heartened by the quick response, since previously action against Lukashenko had taken months to be enforced. 

“I didn't expect such a reaction. I thought it would go away somehow, unnoticeably. But now we have hope for Roman’s release,” he said.

However, Kazakevich said that although Protasevich’s detention had put the political situation in Belarus back on the Western agenda, the immediate effect would be to put more pressure on opposition activists.

“Civil society will lose the sense of security even more than before, as the authorities will try to demonstrate that they are not afraid of any consequences,” he said. “This can lead to the situation when there is less and less opportunity left for the de-escalation of the political conflict inside Belarus.”

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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