Civilian flight forced down in Belarus to arrest journalist

By: Nick Mosher

On May 23rd, Belarusian flight controllers forced down a Ryanair jetliner flying over Belarus in order to arrest dissident Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. Claiming there was a bomb on board, the Belarusian military ordered a fighter jet to escort the civilian plane that was flying from Athens to Vilnius. Protasevich and Sapega were arrested upon landing with no sign of a bomb onboard. Three other passengers disembarked the plane in Minsk and did not complete their trip to Vilnius; these three are rumored to be Belarusian security agents tasked with tracking Protasevich. 

Roman Protasevich is the co-founder and former editor of the opposition social media outlet Nexta, which he and other dissidents have used to criticize the regime of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko. The 26-year-old opposition journalist has been living in exile in Lithuania since 2019 to avoid imprisonment. Belarusian authorities have labeled Protasevich a terrorist and accused him of “inciting hate and mass disorder,” for which he could face up to 12 years in prison if convicted. 

24 hours after his detainment, Protasevich appeared in a video confessing to organizing mass protests in Minsk. Family of Protasevich, as well as Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, have gone on record insisting that this confession was made under duress, citing the bruise on Protasevich’s face. 

The UN is preparing sanctions against Belarus in response to the forced landing of a commercial flight and arrest of Protasevich. These sanctions will come in addition to those already put in place earlier this year following Lukashenko’s violent suppression of protestors after the fraudulent 2020 Belarusian presidential election. The US also announced a series of new sanctions on May 28th, and President Biden is encouraging an international investigation into the matter.  

Lukashenko continues to defend his actions, maintaining that he acted legally and in the best interest of Belarusian national security, as well as accusing the West of spinning the story to further derail Belarusian affairs. Lukashenko’s repression of opponents has drawn intense criticism from the West, as Protasevich and Sapega are just the latest on a list of Belarus’ 449 political prisoners. While the Belarusian government shows no signs of tempering its crackdown on opposition, Lukashenko is drawing even closer to Putin, dragging Belarus into a deeper, more manipulative relationship with Moscow.  

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