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‘A case of state-sponsored hijacking’ Here’s what we know about the forced landing of a Ryanair plane in Minsk and the arrest of Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich

Source: Meduza
The Ryanair plane after landing at the airport in Minsk
The Ryanair plane after landing at the airport in Minsk
Onliner.by / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

On May 23, a Ryanair flight travelling from Athens to Vilnius was forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk due to an alleged bomb threat (that later proved false). On board the flight was Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich (Raman Pratasevich) — the former editor-in-chief of the most prominent Belarusian opposition outlet, Nexta. The Belarusian authorities removed Protasevich from the flight, arresting him along with his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, who is a Russian citizen. The remaining passengers were allowed to leave for Vilnius after a seven hour delay. The Belarusian authorities claim that the pilots made the decision to reroute to Minsk due to a security threat on board — before the landing, Belarus sent up a fighter jet to “accompany” the plane. Here’s what we know about the incident as of May 24.

On May 23, a Ryanair flight was forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk. Franak Viačorka, an advisor to Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya), wrote on Twitter that Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich, the editor of the opposition outlet Belamova, was on board the grounded plane and would face arrest in Belarus. The Belarusian opposition outlet Nexta, where Protasevich was formerly editor-in-chief, reported that the journalist had noticed that he was under surveillance at the airport in Athens prior to the flight. In Minsk, the passengers were taken off the plane and sent to the airport for security checks, during which the security forces detained Protasevich.

In November 2020, Belarusian State Security Committee (KGB) added Protasevich, along with Nexta founder Stepan Putilo (Stsiapan Putsila), to a list of individuals “involved in terrorist activities.” Protasevich and Putilo, who both live outside of Belarus, were the first Belarusian nationals to be added to this terrorist watchlist in the country’s history. The Belarusian authorities also designated the opposition outlet Nexta and its logo as “extremist materials.”

Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich
Roman Protasevich / Facebook

After Protasevich was detained, information began circulating online that he faces the death penalty in Belarus. While the country does allow the death penalty for crimes of terrorism, Protasevich hasn’t been charged with terrorism as of yet (nor has Stepan Putilo). However, the Belarusian Investigative Committee has charged Protasevich with organizing riots in Minsk and “inciting social enmity” against government and police officials. While these charges don’t provide for the death penalty, he could still face lengthy prison terms: up to 15 years for organizing riots and up to 12 years for “inciting enmity.” At the same time, prior to the landing, Protasevich reportedly told other passengers on the flight that he faces the death penalty in Belarus.

Sofia Sapega, Roman Protasevich’s girlfriend, was arrested along with him. A 23-year-old Russian citizen, Sapega lives in Vilnius and studies at European Humanities University (EHU). On May 24, EHU issued a statement demanding that the Belarusian authorities release Sapega immediately. On May 24, Russian Foreign Ministry Sergey Lavrov told reporters that the Russian authorities have requested consular access to Sapega. “We contacted her father and our embassy appealed to the Belarusian Foreign Ministry with a request to provide information on our citizen and provide consular access to her,” he said. Sapega’s mother told the BBC Russian Service that her daughter in custody in Minsk’s notorious Okrestina Street remand prison. 

One of the passengers from the flight said that Protasevich gave Sapega his computer and cell phone before the plane landed in Minsk, adding that she wasn’t on board when the flight finally left for Vilnius. Another passenger said that four other people who boarded the flight in Athens were not there when the plane arrived in Vilnius either. The passenger suggested that these individuals may have been intelligence agents. 

Spokespeople for the Minsk National Airport stated on May 23 that the Ryanair flight was diverted due to an alleged bomb threat. They also claimed that the pilots requested to land in Minsk. Meanwhile, the head of communications for Vilnius International Airport (the flight’s destination) said that there was a “conflict between a crew member and passenger” prior to the landing. Nexta reported that alleged intelligence officers from the Belarusian KGB staged an argument with the cabin crew during the flight, insisting that there was an explosive device on board. Apparently, as a result, the crew was forced to request an emergency landing.

Passengers on board the flight said there weren’t any incidents prior to the landing. According to one eyewitness, the pilots simply changed their route abruptly and announced that the plane would be landing in Minsk, without offering any explanation. “He promised to tell [us] later, but never did tell,” the passenger said. Another passenger said that unlike the other people on board the flight, Protasevich was searched twice. Apparently, security officers watched him from the very beginning and went through his bag twice, but the journalist wasn’t detained immediately upon disembarking from the plane. He was arrested several hours later, when the passengers were inside the airport, the eyewitness said. According to yet another passenger, Protasevich told the flight attendant prior to landing: “Don’t do this, I’m a refugee, they will kill me.” “We must, we have no choice, it’s in Ryanair’s legal agreements,” the flight attendant allegedly said in response. 

Anastasia Zanko

Ryanair later confirmed that the Belarusian authorities instructed the plane to land in Minsk, contradicting reports that the crew requested an emergency landing. “The crew on a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius today (23 May) were notified by Belarus ATC of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk,” the airline said in a statement. The company didn’t offer an explanation as to why the plane landed in Minsk and not Vilnius, which was actually the closest airport at the time. Later, Ryanair CEO Micheal O’Leary described the forced landing as “a case of state-sponsored hijacking… state-sponsored piracy.”

According to aviation engineer Vadim Lukashevich, who analyzed the data on the altitude and flight speed, the pilots “were pulling towards Vilnius until the very last moment and actually got away from the fighter jet pursuing them” — despite approaching the destination airport, the plane didn’t begin to descended or reduce speed, as it would normally be done. Lukashevich presumes that the crew turned the plane around only after being threatened by the fighter jet. 

Meanwhile, Belarusian state media has been circulating an alleged audio recording of the dispatcher talking to the flight crew about the decision to reroute to Minsk. The authenticity of the recording has yet to be confirmed. On the tape, the “crew member” tells the “dispatcher” that landing in the Belarusian capital “is our recommendation.” Immediately after the plane landed in Minsk, the Telegram channel Pul Pervogo, which is linked to President Alexander Lukashenko’s press service, published a post with the headline “Belarus Protected Europe.” The post emphasized that “Lukashenko gave an unequivocal command to turn the plane around and receive it.” Pul Pervogo also reported that the MiG-29 fighter jet “was sent up to escort the passenger plane” under instructions from Lukashenko himself. 

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya condemned the incident, warning that it’s no longer safe to fly through Belarusian airspace. “The regime forced the landing [of a] Ryanair plane in Minsk to arrest journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich. He faces the death penalty in Belarus. We demand immediate release of Raman, [an] ICAO investigation, and sanctions against Belarus,” Tikhanovskaya said following the incident. “Lukashenka’s regime endangered the lives of passengers onboard the plane. From now – no one flying over Belarus – can be secure. International reaction needed!”

The incident involving the forced landing of the plane has taken over the agenda of the EU summit taking place on May 24. In a statement on May 23, European Council President Charles Michel warned that “the incident will not remain without consequences.” Possible measures the EU could take include banning flights over Belarus, banning Belarus’s national airline, Belavia, from operating flights to airports in EU countries, and/or imposing personal sanctions against those involved in the incident.

Latvia’s flag carrier, airBaltic, has already begun to change its flight routes to avoid passing over Belarus, as has the Hungarian low-cost airline Wizz Air and the Netherlands’ flag carrier KLM. On May 24, Lithuania strongly advised its citizens to avoid any travel to Belarus and urged Lithuanian citizen in Belarus to leave the country. Later, Lithuania announced that its airports will be banned from receiving and conducting flights that pass through Belarusian airspace, effective May 25. In turn, the UK’s Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps announced that he had suspended Belavia’s operating permit and instructed the country’s aviation authority to request that airlines “avoid Belarusian airspace to keep passengers safe.” In addition, President Volodymyr Zelensky instructed the Ukrainian government to draw up a decision on terminating flights between Ukraine and Belarus.

The U.S. State Department has condemned the incident, as well. In an official statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned both the diversion of the flight and the removal and arrest of Roman Protasevich. “This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers,” the statement said. Lithuanian police have launched a criminal investigation into the incident under two felony charges — hijacking of an aircraft and the illegal detention of people.   

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Reporting by Grigory Levchenko and Pavel Merzlikin

Translated and updated by Eilish Hart

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