The ‘shocking’ arrest of a Belarusian dissident aboard a Ryanair flight marks a pattern of authoritarianism from ‘Europe’s last dictator’

A split screen photo of Roman Protasevich and Alexander Lukashenko.
Roman Protasevich and Alexander Lukashenko.

  • Belarusian authorities last month diverted a passenger flight in order to arrest a 26-year-old activist.
  • The move shocked the international community, but experts said the step “falls within a certain pattern” for President Alexander Lukashenko.
  • As the autocrat doubles down in the aftermath, experts say international attention and action are more important than ever.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The state-sanctioned diversion and detainment of Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich last month sparked outrage and reproach around the globe. But experts say the drastic move is emblematic of a larger, more nefarious problem in Eastern Europe: the ongoing corruption and abuses by Belarus’s authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko.

Often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator,” Lukashenko has been in power since 1994, enacting his autocratic rule for nearly as long.

But in 2020, Belarus bore witness to a forceful wave of repression following a highly-contested August election, which prompted widespread protests throughout the country.

Protasevich’s detainment in May, though undeniably shocking, “falls within a certain pattern” for Lukashenko, who continues to pursue a renewed crackdown against any and all critics, according to Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division.

In the days since the hijacking, Lukashenko has doubled down – issuing a travel ban for most residents and releasing a suspect video of a detained Protasevich praising the leader and confessing to crimes.

Now, with all eyes on Belarus, experts say international action is more imperative than ever.

A state-sanctioned hijacking captivates the globe

On May 23, Belarusian authorities sent a fighter jet to divert a Ryanair plane flying from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, citing a bogus bomb threat. The passenger plane backtracked, landing in Minsk, where police officers boarded the jet and arrested Protasevich, a 26-year-old journalist and activist, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, a 23-year-old Russian student.

Passengers on Ryanair Flight 4978 told media outlets that the plane was “just minutes” from its destination in Lithuania when the pilot announced the aircraft would make an emergency landing in the Belarusian capital, after previously flying through the country’s airspace.

In the aftermath of the abrupt diversion, passengers on the flight told reporters that Protasevich looked “shocked” and “scared” following the pilot’s announcement, even as the young activist instinctively began collecting his electronics to hand over to Sapega for safekeeping.

Ryanair’s CEO later said KGB agents had been aboard the flight from the start.

Franak Viačorka, a senior advisor to exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and a longtime colleague of Protasevich, told Insider he knows his friend was scared.

“He was always afraid of being captured by KGB, it was his nightmare,” Viačorka said.

The two men were together just before Protasevich’s detainment, attending an economic conference in Greece, where Protasevich and Sapega also enjoyed a brief vacation. Weeks earlier, Viačorka said he and Protasevich had discussed the possibility of his capture and made plans for digital and electronic security.

“But we neglected physical security,” Viačorka said. “This was something we did not predict.”

AP21144289120098
A prominent opponent of Belarus’ authoritarian president Roman Protasevich attends an opposition rally in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, March 25, 2012.

An ‘excessively paranoid’ leader casts aside legality to apprehend a longtime adversary

Belarusian state media has reported that it was Lukashenko, himself, who gave the “unequivocal order” to ground the plane in Minsk – an audacious act by a powerful man driven by the notion that his enemies are out to get him, according to Denber.

“I think it shows that he wanted to send a message that ‘we will find you no matter where you are,'” Denber said. “No one is safe.”

Viačorka likened Lukashenko’s brazen display of power to an “alpha man” wanting to prove to the world he is in control.

Lukashenko’s moves in the days since seem to confirm Viačorka’s characterization of the aging autocrat. On May 24, Belarusian authorities posted videos of both Protasevich and Sapega confessing to crimes against the country.

Roman Protasevich video confession
Screenshot from a video of the journalist Roman Protasevich released by Belarusian authorities on May 24, 2021.

Opposition leaders and Protasevich’s own father said the videos were made under duress, and what appeared to be an injury on Protasevich’s face sparked concerns of torture.

Then, on Thursday, the young dissident appeared on Belarusian state TV confessing to organizing “mass unrest” and praising his one-time foe.

“I realized that many things [Lukashenko] is criticized for are just attempts to pressure him, and that in many moments he acted like…a man with balls of steel,” Protasevich says in the video.

Ten days after his arrest, the staunch Lukashenko opponent was suddenly praising the autocrat’s regime.

Protasevich, who began his activism at 16, had been detained several times before during his time freelancing for opposition news outlets before moving to Poland after he was forced out of university. As co-founder and editor-in-chief of NEXTA, an opposition Telegram channel, he focused much of his work on leaking videos and documents from the Lukashenko regime.

In 2019, he was drawn back to Belarus, eager to impact real change in Minsk. But Lukashenko’s authoritarian grasp was tightening on the country ahead of the 2020 elections, and anticipating impending danger, Protasevich fled to Warsaw for a second time.

Protasevich and his allies continued their journalism at NEXTA leading up to the presidential election, playing a vital informational role as Lukashenko’s regime shuttered independent media organizations inside the country.

But amid mass protests following the country’s highly contested 2020 election, Protasevich’s journalism evolved into political activism as he began organizing protests against the Belarusian government through NEXTA, which had become the most popular opposition platform in Belarus.

“We’re journalists, but we also have to do something else,” Protasevich told The New York Times in September. “No one else is left. The opposition leaders are in prison.”

Belarus has suffered years of election-cycle repression under Lukashenko’s regime

For nearly three decades, Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with a tight grip reminiscent of the country’s Soviet past. But he wasn’t always an oppositional figure.

“It’s important to remember that [Lukashenko] was quite popular when he was elected in 1994,” Denber said.

In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s fall, economic despair and widespread corruption reigned throughout the region, casting a tremendous uncertainty over Belarus. Lukashenko offered an appealing message and solution, Denber said. He wanted to stabilize the economy, fight corruption, and provide economic and national stability for the people.

“But his autocratic…intent to erode democratic freedom and to very brusquely cast aside human rights emerged very quickly,” Denber said.

AP20220708425556
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko emerges from the polling booth after marking his ballot in Belarus’ national referendum in Minsk, Belarus.

By 1996, Lukashenko had already introduced constitutional reforms that strengthened his presidency to the detriment of other government branches and had begun going after his political opponents. By the end of the ’90s, Denber said several of Lukashenko’s political adversaries had disappeared, some presumed murdered.

Thus began a decades-long cycle of election-era repressions targeting independent journalists, human rights defenders, and political protesters. Several election cycles in the aughts sparked protests, Denber said, which in turn, would lead to fierce government crackdowns against civil society.

“There were a lot of pretty dark years,” she said.

After a particularly grim period from 2010 to 2012, Lukashenko’s repression eventually gave way to a slight “loosening up,” Denber said. By 2019, Belarus had released almost all of its political prisoners, and the European Union and the United States both dropped formerly-imposed sanctions against the country.

As the 2020 elections approached, Denber said the government promised a commitment to free and fair elections – it was the first time in years an opposition candidate would be allowed to run a real campaign.

But the August elections proved to be an inflection point of massive consequence for Protasevich, Lukashenko, and the future of Belarus.

A ‘highly contested’ election and a ‘catastrophic’ crackdown

As campaigning for the landmark election began, it was clear Lukashenko was far from ready to acquiesce power. Leading opposition candidates found themselves arrested, oftentimes on bogus charges, while other candidates were simply refused the opportunity to register.

Sergei Tikhanovsky, a well-known blogger faced both a refusal to register his nomination and a short prison sentence for organizing unauthorized protests. So, his wife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya decided to run in his place.

“She was able to campaign fairly unimpeded,” Denber said. “Nobody expected she would draw the crowd she drew.”

Her popularity grew among Belarusians in the spring and early summer. In June, Tikhanovskaya received an anonymous phone call threatening her children’s life unless she dropped out. She sent her children out of Belarus but stayed in the race.

AP20217237147735
In this Sunday, July 19, 2020, file photo, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, candidate for the presidential elections, reacts during a meeting with her supporters in Minsk, Belarus.

On August 9, the Central Election Commission, which is controlled by Lukashenko’s government, announced that the incumbent president had won a sixth term, crediting him with 80% of the vote. Tikhanovskaya’s team objected, claiming to have won at least 60% in a first-round victory and calling on Lukashenko to begin negotiations.

“It’s hard to know what percentage of the vote she actually got, but clearly more than anyone expected,” Denber said.

Negotiations never came. Instead, the government arrested two members of her campaign’s Coordination Council and offered the others a false choice: Leave the country or else.

“We are dealing with a man who is getting…politically older,” Viačorka, Tikhanovskaya’s senior advisor said about Lukashenko. “Last year… he became anxious, nervous, and absolutely irrational.”

During the height of the election outcry in September, Protasevich left Poland to join Tikhanovskaya in Lithuania, cementing himself even further as Lukashenko’s enemy.

In Belarus, the disputed election set off a mass wave of unprecedented, mostly peaceful protests. Viačorka estimated the movement was one of the biggest progressive movements in Europe in the past 40 years.

But the civil demonstrations drew Lukashenko’s ire. The government dismantled what independent media was left, targeting and arresting journalists throughout the country; officials restricted internet access for hours in August as protests surged; and security forces detained thousands of people, subjecting hundreds to torture, Human Rights Watch reported at the end of 2020.

AP21145635494062
In this Aug. 10, 2020, file photo, protesters carry a wounded man during clashes with police in Minsk, Belarus.

“There are so many people in prison right now,” Denber said in May. “Literally hundreds in jail connected to the protest movement.”

Viačorka believes thousands are still detained.

Experts hope last month’s aviation incident will spur international attention and action

Lukashenko’s post-elections crackdown stoked anger among ordinary Belarusians, making him even more unpopular throughout the country and prompting dissidents to look for new forms of resistance, Viačorka said.

But it was last month’s incident – Protasevich and Sapega’s detainment – that captured the world’s attention.

“Last year’s oppression was eye-opening for Belarusians…that was a wake-up call for Belarusians,” Viačorka said. “Sunday was a wake-up call for the world.”

Denber agreed, saying she hoped the hijacking would “shock people to read into what else is happening” in the European country, including the death of a dissident in prison and the arrest of additional journalists since Protasevich’s arrest.

The US responded to what some countries called a “state-sanctioned hijacking” with fierce statements of condemnation and a re-imposition of full-blocking sanctions against Belarusian enterprises and a handful of key members in the regime. The EU prepared its own package of sanctions targeting the country’s national airline and top aviation officials, as well as the Belarusian economy.

All 27 members of the EU also agreed to bar European airlines from flying through Belarusian airspace and block Belarus’s national airline from flying through or landing in the EU.

But the EU may be in a bind moving forward. As the West moves to isolate Belarus even further, the closer it pushes Lukashenko to Vladimir Putin, his complicated, on-again-off-again Russian ally.

Many top officials believe it was Putin who gave Belarus the green light to divert the Ryanair flight.

AP20299596629941
People with old Belarusian national flags march during an opposition rally to protest the official presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020.

But Tikhanovskaya and Viačorka are pressing international allies to think beyond last month’s incident. On Tuesday, the opposition leader called for more US sanctions, imploring the country to take further action against enterprises and individuals supporting the Lukashenko regime.

“Sanctions should help to stop the violence and help release all of political prisoners,” she said after meeting with senators from the US Foreign Relations Committee.

Viačorka and the opposition who remain free will continue to put pressure on the regime, fighting for new, free elections and democratic reforms, he said. He’s also compelling Western politicians to help.

“I urge Americans and Europeans, be braver, be strong,” he told Insider. “The regime is the problem and if you don’t want North Korea in the the center of Europe, try to do everything to shut it down, please.”

As for Protasevich, his future remains uncertain. Last week, his mother begged the US and EU to help free her son, who faces charges of terrorism and inciting anti-government riots.

On Wednesday, Lukashenko intimated that Protasevich may face the death penalty for his “crimes” in Belarus – the last country in Europe to employ the practice.

But Viačorka knows that his friend is only one prisoner in an ongoing war.

“It’s not about Roman. We don’t want to trade for Roman only,” he said. “He will be released only when all prisoners will be released.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

The ‘shocking’ arrest of a Belarusian dissident sparked international condemnation, but it falls into a ‘pattern’ of ongoing authoritarianism from Alexander Lukashenko

AP21144289120098
A prominent opponent of Belarus’ authoritarian president Roman Protasevich attends an opposition rally in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, March 25, 2012.

  • Belarusian authorities last month diverted a passenger flight in order to arrest a 26-year-old activist.
  • The move shocked the international community, but experts said the step “falls within a certain pattern” for President Alexander Lukashenko.
  • As the autocrat doubles down in the aftermath, experts say international attention and action are more important than ever.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The state-sanctioned diversion and detainment of Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich last month sparked outrage and reproach around the globe. But experts say the drastic move is emblematic of a larger, more nefarious problem in Eastern Europe: the ongoing corruption and abuses by Belarus’s authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko.

Often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator,” Lukashenko has been in power since 1994, enacting his autocratic rule for nearly as long.

But in 2020, Belarus bore witness to a forceful wave of repression following a highly-contested August election, which prompted widespread protests throughout the country.

Protasevich’s detainment in May, though undeniably shocking, “falls within a certain pattern” for Lukashenko, who continues to pursue a renewed crackdown against any and all critics, according to Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division.

In the days since the hijacking, Lukashenko has doubled down – issuing a travel ban for most residents and releasing a suspect video of a detained Protasevich praising the leader and confessing to crimes.

Now, with all eyes on Belarus, experts say international action is more imperative than ever.

A state-sanctioned hijacking captivates the globe

On May 23, Belarusian authorities sent a fighter jet to divert a Ryanair plane flying from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, citing a bogus bomb threat. The passenger plane backtracked, landing in Minsk, where police officers boarded the jet and arrested Protasevich, a 26-year-old journalist and activist, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, a 23-year-old Russian student.

Passengers on Ryanair Flight 4978 told media outlets that the plane was “just minutes” from its destination in Lithuania when the pilot announced the aircraft would make an emergency landing in the Belarusian capital, after previously flying through the country’s airspace.

In the aftermath of the abrupt diversion, passengers on the flight told reporters that Protasevich looked “shocked” and “scared” following the pilot’s announcement, even as the young activist instinctively began collecting his electronics to hand over to Sapega for safekeeping.

Ryanair’s CEO later said KGB agents had been aboard the flight from the start.

Franak Viačorka, a senior advisor to exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and a longtime colleague of Protasevich, told Insider he knows his friend was scared.

“He was always afraid of being captured by KGB, it was his nightmare,” Viačorka said.

The two men were together just before Protasevich’s detainment, attending an economic conference in Greece, where Protasevich and Sapega also enjoyed a brief vacation. Weeks earlier, Viačorka said he and Protasevich had discussed the possibility of his capture and made plans for digital and electronic security.

“But we neglected physical security,” Viačorka said. “This was something we did not predict.”

FILE PHOTO: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko gestures as he takes part in the celebrations of Independence Day in Minsk, Belarus July 3, 2020. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko
Belarusian President Lukashenko takes part in the celebrations of Independence Day in Minsk

An ‘excessively paranoid’ leader casts aside legality to apprehend a longtime adversary

Belarusian state media has reported that it was Lukashenko, himself, who gave the “unequivocal order” to ground the plane in Minsk – an audacious act by a powerful man driven by the notion that his enemies are out to get him, according to Denber.

“I think it shows that he wanted to send a message that ‘we will find you no matter where you are,'” Denber said. “No one is safe.”

Viačorka likened Lukashenko’s brazen display of power to an “alpha man” wanting to prove to the world he is in control.

Lukashenko’s moves in the days since seem to confirm Viačorka’s characterization of the aging autocrat. On May 24, Belarusian authorities posted videos of both Protasevich and Sapega confessing to crimes against the country.

Roman Protasevich video confession
Screenshot from a video of the journalist Roman Protasevich released by Belarusian authorities on May 24, 2021.

Opposition leaders and Protasevich’s own father said the videos were made under duress, and what appeared to be an injury on Protasevich’s face sparked concerns of torture.

Then, on Thursday, the young dissident appeared on Belarusian state TV confessing to organizing “mass unrest” and praising his one-time foe.

“I realized that many things [Lukashenko] is criticized for are just attempts to pressure him, and that in many moments he acted like…a man with balls of steel,” Protasevich says in the video.

Ten days after his arrest, the staunch Lukashenko opponent was suddenly praising the autocrat’s regime.

Protasevich, who began his activism at 16, had been detained several times before during his time freelancing for opposition news outlets before moving to Poland after he was forced out of university. As co-founder and editor-in-chief of NEXTA, an opposition Telegram channel, he focused much of his work on leaking videos and documents from the Lukashenko regime.

In 2019, he was drawn back to Belarus, eager to impact real change in Minsk. But Lukashenko’s authoritarian grasp was tightening on the country ahead of the 2020 elections, and anticipating impending danger, Protasevich fled to Warsaw for a second time.

Protasevich and his allies continued their journalism at NEXTA leading up to the presidential election, playing a vital informational role as Lukashenko’s regime shuttered independent media organizations inside the country.

But amid mass protests following the country’s highly contested 2020 election, Protasevich’s journalism evolved into political activism as he began organizing protests against the Belarusian government through NEXTA, which had become the most popular opposition platform in Belarus.

“We’re journalists, but we also have to do something else,” Protasevich told The New York Times in September. “No one else is left. The opposition leaders are in prison.”

Belarus has suffered years of election-cycle repression under Lukashenko’s regime

For nearly three decades, Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with a tight grip reminiscent of the country’s Soviet past. But he wasn’t always an oppositional figure.

“It’s important to remember that [Lukashenko] was quite popular when he was elected in 1994,” Denber said.

In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s fall, economic despair and widespread corruption reigned throughout the region, casting a tremendous uncertainty over Belarus. Lukashenko offered an appealing message and solution, Denber said. He wanted to stabilize the economy, fight corruption, and provide economic and national stability for the people.

“But his autocratic…intent to erode democratic freedom and to very brusquely cast aside human rights emerged very quickly,” Denber said.

AP20220708425556
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko emerges from the polling booth after marking his ballot in Belarus’ national referendum in Minsk, Belarus.

By 1996, Lukashenko had already introduced constitutional reforms that strengthened his presidency to the detriment of other government branches and had begun going after his political opponents. By the end of the ’90s, Denber said several of Lukashenko’s political adversaries had disappeared, some presumed murdered.

Thus began a decades-long cycle of election-era repressions targeting independent journalists, human rights defenders, and political protesters. Several election cycles in the aughts sparked protests, Denber said, which in turn, would lead to fierce government crackdowns against civil society.

“There were a lot of pretty dark years,” she said.

After a particularly grim period from 2010 to 2012, Lukashenko’s repression eventually gave way to a slight “loosening up,” Denber said. By 2019, Belarus had released almost all of its political prisoners, and the European Union and the United States both dropped formerly-imposed sanctions against the country.

As the 2020 elections approached, Denber said the government promised a commitment to free and fair elections – it was the first time in years an opposition candidate would be allowed to run a real campaign.

But the August elections proved to be an inflection point of massive consequence for Protasevich, Lukashenko, and the future of Belarus.

A ‘highly contested’ election and a ‘catastrophic’ crackdown

As campaigning for the landmark election began, it was clear Lukashenko was far from ready to acquiesce power. Leading opposition candidates found themselves arrested, oftentimes on bogus charges, while other candidates were simply refused the opportunity to register.

Sergei Tikhanovsky, a well-known blogger faced both a refusal to register his nomination and a short prison sentence for organizing unauthorized protests. So, his wife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya decided to run in his place.

“She was able to campaign fairly unimpeded,” Denber said. “Nobody expected she would draw the crowd she drew.”

Her popularity grew among Belarusians in the spring and early summer. In June, Tikhanovskaya received an anonymous phone call threatening her children’s life unless she dropped out. She sent her children out of Belarus but stayed in the race.

AP20217237147735
In this Sunday, July 19, 2020, file photo, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, candidate for the presidential elections, reacts during a meeting with her supporters in Minsk, Belarus.

On August 9, the Central Election Commission, which is controlled by Lukashenko’s government, announced that the incumbent president had won a sixth term, crediting him with 80% of the vote. Tikhanovskaya’s team objected, claiming to have won at least 60% in a first-round victory and calling on Lukashenko to begin negotiations.

“It’s hard to know what percentage of the vote she actually got, but clearly more than anyone expected,” Denber said.

Negotiations never came. Instead, the government arrested two members of her campaign’s Coordination Council and offered the others a false choice: Leave the country or else.

“We are dealing with a man who is getting…politically older,” Viačorka, Tikhanovskaya’s senior advisor said about Lukashenko. “Last year… he became anxious, nervous, and absolutely irrational.”

During the height of the election outcry in September, Protasevich left Poland to join Tikhanovskaya in Lithuania, cementing himself even further as Lukashenko’s enemy.

In Belarus, the disputed election set off a mass wave of unprecedented, mostly peaceful protests. Viačorka estimated the movement was one of the biggest progressive movements in Europe in the past 40 years.

But the civil demonstrations drew Lukashenko’s ire. The government dismantled what independent media was left, targeting and arresting journalists throughout the country; officials restricted internet access for hours in August as protests surged; and security forces detained thousands of people, subjecting hundreds to torture, Human Rights Watch reported at the end of 2020.

AP21145635494062
In this Aug. 10, 2020, file photo, protesters carry a wounded man during clashes with police in Minsk, Belarus.

“There are so many people in prison right now,” Denber said in May. “Literally hundreds in jail connected to the protest movement.”

Viačorka believes thousands are still detained.

Experts hope last month’s aviation incident will spur international attention and action

Lukashenko’s post-elections crackdown stoked anger among ordinary Belarusians, making him even more unpopular throughout the country and prompting dissidents to look for new forms of resistance, Viačorka said.

But it was last month’s incident – Protasevich and Sapega’s detainment – that captured the world’s attention.

“Last year’s oppression was eye-opening for Belarusians…that was a wake-up call for Belarusians,” Viačorka said. “Sunday was a wake-up call for the world.”

Denber agreed, saying she hoped the hijacking would “shock people to read into what else is happening” in the European country, including the death of a dissident in prison and the arrest of additional journalists since Protasevich’s arrest.

The US responded to what some countries called a “state-sanctioned hijacking” with fierce statements of condemnation and a re-imposition of full-blocking sanctions against Belarusian enterprises and a handful of key members in the regime. The EU prepared its own package of sanctions targeting the country’s national airline and top aviation officials, as well as the Belarusian economy.

All 27 members of the EU also agreed to bar European airlines from flying through Belarusian airspace and block Belarus’s national airline from flying through or landing in the EU.

But the EU may be in a bind moving forward. As the West moves to isolate Belarus even further, the closer it pushes Lukashenko to Vladimir Putin, his complicated, on-again-off-again Russian ally.

Many top officials believe it was Putin who gave Belarus the green light to divert the Ryanair flight.

AP20299596629941
People with old Belarusian national flags march during an opposition rally to protest the official presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020.

But Tikhanovskaya and Viačorka are pressing international allies to think beyond last month’s incident. On Tuesday, the opposition leader called for more US sanctions, imploring the country to take further action against enterprises and individuals supporting the Lukashenko regime.

“Sanctions should help to stop the violence and help release all of political prisoners,” she said after meeting with senators from the US Foreign Relations Committee.

Viačorka and the opposition who remain free will continue to put pressure on the regime, fighting for new, free elections and democratic reforms, he said. He’s also compelling Western politicians to help.

“I urge Americans and Europeans, be braver, be strong,” he told Insider. “The regime is the problem and if you don’t want North Korea in the the center of Europe, try to do everything to shut it down, please.”

As for Protasevich, his future remains uncertain. Last week, his mother begged the US and EU to help free her son, who faces charges of terrorism and inciting anti-government riots.

On Wednesday, Lukashenko intimated that Protasevich may face the death penalty for his “crimes” in Belarus – the last country in Europe to employ the practice.

But Viačorka knows that his friend is only one prisoner in an ongoing war.

“It’s not about Roman. We don’t want to trade for Roman only,” he said. “He will be released only when all prisoners will be released.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

Senators urge Biden to prohibit US flights over Belarus after ‘state-sponsored hijacking’ of dissident

AP21144289120098
A prominent opponent of Belarus’ authoritarian president Roman Protasevich attends an opposition rally in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, March 25, 2012.

  • Two US Senators sent a letter Monday urging President Joe Biden to prohibit US flights over Belarus.
  • The request comes after Belarus arrested Roman Protasevich after forcing the flight he was on to land.
  • The letter was signed by Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat, and Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The “state-sponsored hijacking” of a civilian flight in order to arrest a dissident activist should prompt President Joe Biden to ban US airlines from flying over Belarus, two US senators said in a letter on Monday.

Over the weekend, authorities in Belarus forced the landing of a Ryanair flight – sending up a fighter jet and claiming a possible terrorist threat – in order to arrest Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old journalist and critic of the authoritarian regime led by President Alexander Lukashenko. Belarusian authorities have since posted a video of Protasevich that his allies say appears to have been delivered under duress, Reuters reported.

President Biden condemned the arrest in a statement Monday evening, calling it “a direct affront to international norms.” Biden said he asked advisers “to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible.”

In the meantime, Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, and Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, want the president to keep US flights away from Eastern European nation.

“In an effort to keep passengers and crew safe, we urge you to prohibit all US airlines from entering Belarusian airspace,” they wrote in a joint missive. The US has imposed a similar prohibition on flights over North Korea, the senators note. “We must protect innocent passengers from despotic regimes and stand in solidarity with dissidents who are being targeted.”

President Alexander Lukashenko, who has led Belarus since 1994, was ostensibly reelected last year. But that vote has been widely criticized as fraudulent, with the European Union refusing to recognize the results.

The vote was followed by widespread protests in Belarus that were brutally repressed, with authorities detaining thousands, “many of them tortured or otherwise ill-treated,” according to Amnesty International. Belarus accuses Protasevich of orchestrating the protests to overthrow the government.

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

Read the original article on Business Insider

The EU moves to isolate Belarus after the government diverted a flight carrying a Belarusian dissident

ryanair activist Roman Protasevich lukashenko
A woman stands with a poster reading ‘Where is Roman (Protasevich)?!’at Vilnius International Airport, on May 23, 2021.

  • The EU moved to isolate Belarus after the government diverted a flight to arrest a journalist.
  • Roman Protasevich was on the Ryanair flight when it landed in Minsk due to a bogus security threat.
  • The bloc ordered EU-based airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace and banned Belarusian airlines from its airspace and airports.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The European Union moved to isolate Belarus in light of the arrest of a journalist who was arrested after the government diverted a Ryanair flight on Sunday.

The EU ordered all EU-based airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace and banned Belarusian airlines from entering EU airspace and landing in its airports. The move was announced Monday during a summit of European Union leaders in Brussels.

Journalist Roman Protasevich was taken into custody after the Lithuania-bound flight he was aboard was grounded in Minsk due to a bogus security threat. Protasevich is a vocal critic of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who gave an “unequivocal order” to ground the Ryanair jet in Minsk, according to state media.

Protasevich’s arrest drew international outrage as EU leaders condemned the forced grounding of the flight and called for the “immediate release” of Protasevich and his partner, Sofia Sapega, who was also escorted off the flight. World leaders also demanded “their freedom of movement be guaranteed.”

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Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Union’s European Commission, said the “outrageous and illegal behavior of the regime in Belarus will have consequences.”

“Those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned,” von der Leyen said in a statement on Twitter. “Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately.”

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also called the incident an “unprecedented act of state terrorism.”

“Hijacking of a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism. It cannot go unpunished,” Morawiecki said in a statement, adding that he would petition for sanctions against Belarus in light of Protasevich’s arrest.

At the Brussels summit, Xavier Bettel, the prime minister of Luxembourg, described the incident as “madness,” according to a report by The New York Times.

“It’s like something out of a very bad movie,” Bettel said. “It shows the state of the regime.”

EU officials said few raised objections to the move to avoid Belarusian airspace – a rare occurrence as the bloc does not tend to come to a consensus on controversial issues so quickly and easily, The Times reported.

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