Belarus detains Journalist Roman Protasevich; faces international condemnation

Belarus; Authoritarian Mr. Lukashenko’s government faces international sanction threats as the accused of “state piracy” for detaining Belarusian dissident, Roman Protasevich. The UN urges immediate inquiry into the “incident.”

Belarus faces International condemnation as Belarusian journalist and pro-democracy opposition activist, Roman Protasevich was taken into custody when a Lithuanian Ryanair bound flight was forced to land in Minsk National Airport on the pretext of security alert and bomb threat on Sunday.

BBC reported Irish company Ryanair’s statement that its crew was “notified by Belarus (Air Traffic Control) of a potential security threat on-board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.”

The Belarusian Interior Ministry confirmed that Protasevich was arrested at the airport. At least four people did not reboard the plane, including Protasevich’s Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, a law student. Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O’Leary believes that the remaining two must have been some Belarusian KGB agents.

An Associated Press report quoted a passenger aboard the aircraft saying, “I saw this Belarusian guy with a girlfriend sitting right behind us. He freaked out when the pilot said the plane was diverted to Minsk. He said there’s death penalty awaiting him there”

Although Belarus said that flight was diverted due to bomb threat from Palestinian militant group Hamas, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum denied any involvement. Belarus said, “If you do not fulfil our demands, the bomb will explode over Vilnius.” German leader Chancellor Angela Merkel refuted Belarus’s claim calling it “completely implausible.”

The Co-recipient of European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, began his digital activism as a teenager. He was first arrested in 2012, at age of 17 for running 2 Russian-based social networking sites Vkontakte against the Belarusian President. One of his sites was known as “We are sick of this Lukashenko”. After the release, he told the press “they (KGB) hit me in the kidney and liver.”

Later on, he left Belarus in 2019 taking the editor-in-chief position in pro-opposition Telegram channel Nexta. Nexta with over 1.2 million subscribers, became the main tool in the Belarusian resistance movement after the disputed 2020 Presidential election.

Mr. Lukashenko,  the ruler for more than a quarter-century and ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, claimed his sixth straight election victory. On the other hand, opposition leader Tikhanovskaya accused Lukashenko of rigging election polls. Svetlana claimed that she was the one who originally won.

In November, a warrant was issued against Nexta for involvement in terrorist activity. Roman mocked the warrant on a Twitter post by calling himself “history’s first terrorist journalist.”

Translation: I am officially recognized as a terrorist. Yes, this is not a joke. The KGB of Belarus put me on the list of terrorists. Now my name is on the same list with the guys from ISIS

Belarus witnessed the arrest of more than 34,000 people since the protest began in August. Thousands of protesters complained that they were beaten by security forces during the detention. 

Co-chair of the Christian Democracy party, Paval Sieviaryniets was arrested in June and given a seven-year sentence before the protests  began. Even in court, Paval shouted, “Belarus will be free.” He chanted “We believe, we can, we will win.”

Meanwhile, a  DW journalist was sentenced to 20 days detention on May 15 while covering the trial of an opposition figure.

Roman’s latest tweet was on May 16 for photographing Tikhanovskaya’s visit to Athens. It was on his return from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania when the Ryanair flight was intercepted by fighter jet MIG-24 at the Belarus border.

Flight hijacked by the authoritarian Belarusian President gained international condemnation. Hours later, Belarus then released a detained Belarusian dissident’s confession video on the  Pro-regime Telegram channel. In the video, Roman denied ill-treatment or any heart problem. While talking to BBC, the Dissident’s father, Dimitri Protasevich, said that his son must have been tortured to confess organizing “mass riots.”

In a leaked confession video onto pro-Government Telegram channel, Sofia Sapega, 23, also admits to running a social media channel. She confessed that the channel published personal details of Belarusian law enforcement personnel. Tikhanovskaya made a similar confession “hostage type” video before she fled from Belarus in August. Later on, she said that her family was threatened in order for the confession video.

Several protestors and detainees have called out the Belarusian jails for their widespread torture. Recently, the Leader of the Opposition Party Belarusian Popular Front, Vitold Ashurak, suffered a fatal heart attack while serving a five-year prison sentence for participating in the protest.

Accused of ruthlessly suppressing dissent, Minsk blocked independent news website tut.by last week. Restrictions are imposed on Journalists. Minsk has also banned live coverage of unsanctioned protests and organising “mass events.”

The United Nations has urged an inquiry into the incident to which western power has called “state piracy.” The EU and other western nations have asked for the release of detained Belarusian dissidents while Russia, the most important ally of Mr. Lukashenko, accused the West of hypocrisy. 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expressed dismay and the EU is prepared to impose piles of economic sanctions on Belarus for its authoritarian regime. However, economic sanctions did not stop Mr. Lukashenko in the past so it is highly doubtful if it’d work this time.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called the incident “brazen and shocking. He tweeted:

Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nauseda accused the Belarus government of a “state-sponsored terror act.” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said, “Hijacking a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism that cannot go unpunished.”

 

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