- Roman Protasevich pleaded with cabin crew not to land Flight 4978 in Minsk, according to Politico.
- Passengers said the flight was “just minutes” from its destination when the pilot announced an emergency landing.
- Protasevich told passengers he was “facing the death penalty.”
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Roman Protasevich, the Belarusian journalist and activist who was detained in Minsk on Sunday, pleaded with cabin crew not to ground the Athens-Vilnius flight in the Belarus capital, out of fear for his life, according to Politico.
Belarusian authorities on Sunday sent a fighter jet to divert the Ryanair plane, citing a bogus bomb threat. When the passenger plane was forced to land in Minsk, police officers boarded the jet and arrested Protasevich and his girlfriend, sparking international outrage.
Passengers on Ryanair Flight 4978 told the outlet that the plane was “just minutes” from its destination in Lithuania when the pilot announced the plane would make an emergency landing in Minsk.
Initially, many of the flight’s 171 passengers worried there was something wrong with the plane or the Vilnius airport, Politico reported.
But Protasevich – a 26-year old dissident who has been openly critical of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s rule – knew what was really happening, according to multiple media reports.
Passengers on the flight told The Daily Beast that as soon as Ryanair announced the diversion, Protasevich “immediately” opened the overhead compartment to collect his electronics, handing his laptop and phone to his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.
“Behind me, a man stands up and says he wants to talk to the steward,” Raselle, a Lithuanian woman who lives in Greece, told Politico. “He was shocked and scared.”
Protasevich then began to plead with the crew.
“Don’t do this. They will kill me,” he reportedly said. “I am a refugee.”
According to eyewitnesses, a flight attendant cited “legal agreements” as the reason the plane had to land.
Though other passengers remained mostly calm, passengers told AFP reporter Katy Lee that Protasevich expressed fear and told other passengers he was “facing the death penalty.”
“He was not screaming, but it was clear that he was very much afraid,” passenger Edvinas Disma told Lee. “It looked like if the window had been open, he would have jumped out of it.”
Once in Minsk, authorities removed passengers from the plane in groups of five, while dogs sniffed them and their bags, Politico reported.
One passenger, Saulius Danauskas, told Baltic news site Delfi, that he quickly realized the bomb threat had been a ruse.
“When we landed people were standing around the plane doing nothing, looking pleased with themselves,” Danauskas told the outlet. “They didn’t let us out for half an hour. If there was a bomb on the plane, why would they not let us out?”
Passengers told The New York Times that Protasevich’s luggage was checked twice before a security officer took him to the terminal, where he was then arrested.
“Roman was with us and after we arrived they took him and his girlfriend,” Raselle told Politico. “All very discreetly. He was very calm, didn’t shout, he followed them, somehow accepting his destiny.”
For the next seven hours, passengers said they waited.
“The Belarusian authorities treated us like prisoners, we were so many hours in the bus, then at the airport for hours without water or being able to go to the toilet, all in order to have this show that they were actually searching for something, when they only wanted to get the guy,” Raselle told Politico. “It was a circus, a fiasco.”
Belarusian state media has reported that it was Lukashenko who gave the “unequivocal order” to ground the plane in Minsk. Flightradar.com data that shows the jet was closer to its destination in Lithuania than Minsk, Insider’s Cheryl Teh reported.
Lawyers looking to help Protasevich told The Times they believe he is being held in a jail in Minsk operated by the Belarusian intelligence service.
On Monday, Belarusian authorities posted a video of Protasevich, in which he said he was cooperating with authorities.
The international response has been swift. On Monday, the European Union moved to isolate Belarus, ordering all EU-based airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace and banning Belarusian airlines from entering EU airspace and landing in its airports.
The White House has called for an international investigation into the flight’s diversion and President Joe Biden released a statement applauding the European Union’s call for economic sanctions.
“The United States will continue to stand with the people of Belarus in their struggle,” Biden said.