In its third crackdown on a perceived source of anti-government information within the past week, Belarus on May 23 detained a former Belarusian Telegram channel editor, Raman Pratasevich, after dispatching a MiG fighter jet to divert Pratasevich’s Ryanair flight FR4978 to the Belarusian capital, Minsk, for an alleged on-board “security threat.”
Belarusian officials have not yet revealed Pratasevich’s exact whereabouts after the Ryanair plane from Athens, Greece landed in Minsk en route to Vilnius, Lithuania. A woman traveling with the journalist-activist, later identified by international media as 23-year-old Sofia Sapega, a law student in Vilnius and Pratasevich's girlfriend, also was detained.The charges against Sapega, a Russian citizen, are unknown.
Pratasevich, 26, is the former editor of two Telegram information channels NEXTA (Belarusian for “someone”) and NEXTA Live, that ranked among the social-media platform’s most popular following the August 2020 outbreak of protests in Belarus against Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s official reelection as president.* The two channels, now banned as “extremist” in Belarus, actively encouraged participation in the unsanctioned protests.
Pratasevich, who received political-refugee status in neighboring Poland in 2020, faces criminal charges in Belarus for mass disorders, organizing and preparing activities violating public order, and inciting “social hostility.” (Though Belarus’ Committee of State Security (KGB) has listed him as a terrorist, the KGB document cites only the “mass disorders” charge. )
Under the Belarusian criminal code, the three charges Pratasevich is facing potentially carry up to 17 years in prison, in total. Belarusian prosecutors unsuccessfully demanded in late 2020 that the Polish government extradite Pratasevich and NEXTA founder Stsyapan Putsila to Belarus for trial on the charges.
Now, some members of the international community allege that Minsk simply opted to compel Pratasevich to come to them.
On a May 24 broadcast on the Republic of Ireland's Newstalk radio, Michael O'Leary, CEO of Ryanair, an Irish company, called flight FR4978's diversion to Minsk " a case of state-sponsored hijacking… state-sponsored piracy."
O'Leary stated that "five to six people" had left the plane at Minsk, only one, Pratasevich, was detained. He conjectured that, apart from Pratasevich's "traveling companion," the remaining individuals had been "some [Belarusian] KGB agents," but did not elaborate about the grounds for that suspicion.
The multimillionaire businessman said that Ryanair would divert its flights from Belarusian airspace if directed to do so by "European authorities," Newstalk reported.
On May 23, human-rights organization Amnesty International asserted that the Belarusian government had “used a false bomb threat and a MiG fighter jet to force an airplane” to land in Belarus “with the apparent sole purpose of detaining an exiled critical journalist whom they badly wanted silenced.”
"While it sounds like an extraordinary Hollywood plot, it's not," the watchdog wrote.
Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Anatol Glaz countered on May 24 that the Belarusian authorities had followed the irules for international aviation safety, and would "guarantee complete transparency" if experts will need to be called in to investigate the incident. Glaz dismissed international criticism of Belarus' actions as an "intended politicization" of the event, without looking to the facts, the state-run BelTA news agency reported.
Pratasevich’s detention follows a May 18 block put on the site of the country’s largest independent news outlet, Tut.by, and the detention of multiple Tut.by editorial and administrative staff over a tax dispute. The outlet has essentially ceased operations apart from social media.
On May 21, the government took aim at another longtime media foe, the Poland-based satellite TV channel Belsat. Police broke into the station’s Minsk studio and detained six employees, Belsat reported. The broadcaster did not state the official reasons for the detentions.
The United States and European Union, which both have sanctioned Belarus for the conduct of its 2020 presidential elections and police violence against protesters, appear also to suspect that the only “security threat” Belarus perceived on the Ryanair flight was Pratasevich himself. Both have harshly condemned Pratasevich’s detention following his plane’s MiG-escorted diversion to Minsk.
Describing the diversion as a “brazen and shocking act,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that the U.S. would coordinate a response with its partners and called for “an international investigation.”
The European Council, a consortium of the European Union’s 27 heads of state, has stated that it will discuss the “unprecedented” event at a May 24 meeting. “The incident will not remain without consequence,” European Council President Charles Michel pledged.
Both Latvia and Lithuania, two of Belarus’ western neighbors, have called for Belarus’ air space to be declared unsafe. Latvia's flag carrier, airBaltic, announced on May 24 that it would stop using Belarusian airspace, Reuters reported.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda has urged fellow members of the European Union to ban Belarus’ planes from using EU airports.
As have other international actors, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has urged severe sanctions against Belarus for its action. “Hijacking of a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism,” tweeted Prime Minister Morawiecki. “It cannot go unpunished.”
The United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization, which oversees international aviation regulations, has expressed “strong concern” at “the apparent forced landing” of the flight, in potential violation of the 1944 Chicago Convention, which lay the groundwork for the rules of international civilian air travel.
Information about the alleged bomb on board Ryanair flight FR4978 came from Belarusian air traffic controllers, Ryanair’s press office tweeted.
A Telegram channel believed linked to the Belarusian government, Pul Pervogo (Pool of the First), posted that Lukashenka himself had ordered the Minsk National Airport to accept the plane and for a Russian-made MiG-29 fighter plane to accompany it to the airport. “Belarus has saved Europe,” the channel declared.
After a wait of several hours at the airport, the Boeing 737-800 continued on to Vilnius, BelTA reported.
But the MiG-29’s role has been interpreted variously.
The deputy commander of Belarus’ air force, Major-General Andrey Gurtsevich, stated that the fighter jet had been ordered to exert “control” and, “if necessary, help the civilian aircraft to land safely at the Minsk-2 airfield,” BelTA reported. Gurtsevich did not specify what “assistance” a fighter jet could provide to prevent a suspected explosive device from detonating on board a passenger plane or how it could help the plane to land.
Roughly an hour after the plane landed in Minsk, the airport announced that the information about a bomb had been false. Belarus’ Investigative Committee, which handles criminal inquiries, has begun an investigation into the case.
Some government critics contend that Belarusian investigators will not have far to look.
Lithuania-based Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenka's main challenger in the 2020 presidential race, charged that Minsk officials ran a special operation to force the flight down. Like others, she has demanded that Ryanair and the ICAO investigate the matter.
“Not a single person flying over Belarus can be confident in his security,” commented Tsikhanouskaya.
The event, however, is not the first time that Belarus’ international aviation judgment under Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been questioned. In 1995, two U.S. balloonists, Alan Fraenckel and John Stuart-Jervis, were killed when a Belarusian military helicopter shot down their hot air balloon during a race through eastern Europe.
Minsk claimed that the balloon had flown too close to a military base.
*Pratasevich was a 2017-2018 Vaclav Havel Journalism fellow at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, of which Current Time is part.