Belarus Plane Hijack Incident: Why did Belarus force-land flight carrying Roman Protasevic, who is he?


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US President Joe Biden on May 24, 2021 welcomed the European Union’s call for sanctions against Belarus over the force landing of Ryanair flight in its territory to arrest a dissident journalist on board. 

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko on May 23, 2021 forced a commercial airline flying from Greece to Lithuania to land in its territory reportedly on the pretext of a bomb scare, so it could arrest journalist Roman Protasevic,a dissident journalist who has been living in exile in Lithuania since fleeing his home country in 2019. 

The arrest sparked international outrage as it amounts to the hijacking of a plane and illegal arrest. The opposition leaders of the nation denounced the incident as an act of terrorism by the state. The move has also infuriated EU leaders who are discussing possible consequences for Belarus.

US Statement 

•US Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a formal statement saying that the US strongly condemns the Lukashenka regime’s brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist. “We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on the next steps. The United States stands with the people of Belarus,” he tweeted. 

•The US President has instructed his administration to frame options to hold Belarus accountable for its actions. Biden said in a statement that he welcomed the news that the European Union has called for targeted economic sanctions and other measures.

•He added saying that the United States condemns in the strongest possible terms both the diversion of the plane and the subsequent removal and arrest of Pratasevich. He said it is a shameful assault on both political dissent and the freedom of the press.

•The US joins countries around the world in calling for the journalist’s release, as well as for the release of the hundreds of political prisoners who are being unjustly detained by the Lukashenka regime.

EU sanctions 

•The leaders of EU member states have urged the European Council to adopt the necessary measures to ban overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines. 

•They have also called for not giving Belarusian flights access to EU airports and have called on all EU-based carriers to avoid overflight of Belarus. 

•They stated that Belarus’s forced diversion of a commercial Ryanair flight  and subsequent removal and arrest of Raman Pratasevich, a Belarusian journalist traveling abroad, are a direct affront to international norms.

•The move came after Belarusian state television broadcasted a 30-second video of Protasevich, confirming that he was in prison in Minsk and “confessing” to charges of organising mass unrest. Protasevich could possibly face 15 years in jail. 

Belarus Plane Hijack Incident- Explained

Why and how did Belarus force-land a commercial flight in Minsk?

•On May 23, 2021, Belarus force landed a commercial plane that was flying from Athens in Greece to Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania at Minsk in Belarus. 

•Irish airline Ryanair said in a statement that its flight FR4978 from Athens to Vilnius was notified by Belarus (Air Traffic Control) of “a potential security threat onboard” and was “instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.” The threat turned out to be a complete farce. 

•Aboard the plane was a dissident journalist, Roman Protasevic, who was returning to Vilnius in Lithuania after attending an economic conference in the Greek capital of Athens with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a Belarusian opposition politician.

•As per reports, a MiG-29 fighter plane intercepted the Ryanair and forced it to land in Minsk, which is the capital of Belarus. The flight had already begun its descent into the Lithuanian capital when the pilot announced that the plane would be suddenly diverting to Minsk.

What happened after the force landing?

•Roman Protasevic was immediately separated upon arrival in Minsk along with a female passenger. His passport was reportedly taken away. Protasevic must have got a hint of what was in store, as according to an onboard passenger, Roman stood up as soon as it was announced they were going to land in Minsk and opened the luggage compartment, took the luggage and was trying to split things. “He said there’s death penalty awaiting him there”, recounted the Lithuanian passenger.

•According to other passengers, Protasevich along with his girlfriend and four other people were not seen again when the plane was finally let go and landed in Vilnius. No bomb was found on board the plane.  

Who is Roman Protasevich?

•The 26-year-old journalist is the co-founder of the NEXTA media outlet on the social media platform Telegram. The channel is a rare source of independent news in Belarus, as most media outlets in the nation were banned during Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko’s long authoritarian rule. 

•Hence, NEXTA provides a platform for the opposition forces of Belarus to share information and organise against Lukashenko. Protasevich had fled Belarus in 2019 fearing that he would be arrested. He had taken refuge in neighbouring country, Lithuania. 

•He continued his journalism work from Lithuania despite being in exile. In November 2020, he was charged with inciting public disorder and social hatred in Belarus by Lukashenko’s regime. 

•Roman Protasevich’s name was also put in a list of terrorists and if convicted, he could face the death penalty.

Lithuania’s Reaction

Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nauseda slammed the plane hijacking and called it a “state-sponsored terror act”. He said that he would be proposing before the European Council to ban Belarusian planes from European Union airports, as well as “serious sanctions” against the Lukashenko regime.

Background 

In August 2020, a controversial presidential vote in Belarus showed that Lukashenko, the nation’s ruler for more than a quarter-century, had won his sixth straight election victory. The results were followed by month-long protests and the state was accused of ruthlessly suppressing dissents. Lukashenko is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.





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