The Federal Aviation Administration, an American civil aviation agency, said it had received 2,500 reports of disorderly behavior by passengers since January 2021. About 1,900 of the reports deal with passengers who refused to comply with the federal facemask mandate.
In the aftermath of Protasevich’s arrest, Franak Viačorka, a senior advisor to exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and a longtime colleague of Protasevich, told Insider that the two men had discussed potential scenarios and reactions to different events undertaken by their country’s autocratic government.
“We thought about security a lot,” Viačorka said. “Especially digital security.”
As co-founder and editor-in-chief of NEXTA, a popular opposition Telegram channel based in Poland, Protasevich focused much of his work on leaking videos and documents from the Lukashenko regime. The team at NEXTA played a vital informational role during last year’s highly contested presidential election as Lukashenko’s regime shuttered independent media organizations inside the country.
When Belarusian security forces detained Protasevich on May 23 after the Ryanair flight he was traveling on from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in Minsk, Viačorka said all of Protasevich’s pages and accounts were deleted, thanks to prior digital security planning.
“But we neglected the physical security,” he said. “This flight, this was something we did not predict.
Protasevich had been flying to Vilnius from Athens where he had been covering an economic forum before enjoying a brief vacation with his girlfriend, 23-year-old Sofia Sapega, who was also detained last month.
Viačorka had been in Greece with Protasevich just days before, where he and his boss, Tikhanovskaya, who was forced into exile after running against Lukashenko in August’s disputed elections, attended the same conference, at the invitation of Greece’s government, he said.
In fact, one week before Protasevich and Sapega’s fateful Ryanair flight, Viačorka told Insider that he and Tikhanovskaya took the same flight from Athens to Vilnius.
“So, perhaps, that was also a message to us,” he said.
When Viačorka saw the news that a plane had been forced to stop in Minsk on that Sunday in May, he said he was shocked. He believes he was one of the first people to know Protasevich was on the flight and the intended target of the aircraft’s backtracking.
“I waited until the very last moment to not publish this information, hoping that something will change, hoping that they will let him go or they will not land in Minsk,” he said.
In the hours and days that followed 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.
“I know Roman was scared. He was always afraid of being captured by KGB,” Viačorka said. “It was his nightmare.”
In their conversations in the weeks leading up to Protasevich’s capture, the two men discussed KGB methods and spy networks, Viačorka said.
“Sometimes joking, sometimes seriously, we discussed these different situations,” he said. “Perhaps, this is the only situation we did not predict.”
Protasevich now faces a possible death sentence on charges of terrorism and inciting anti-government riots in Belarus – the last European country to employ the method.
On Thursday, he appeared on Belarusian state TV confessing to crimes against the country and praising his one-time foe, Lukashenko. Protasaevich’s family, Belarusian opposition leaders, and members of the international community have decried the video, which has raised new concerns of torture and coercion.
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.
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A routine commercial flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, spiraled into a dramatic international incident after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko forced the flight to make an unscheduled pit stop in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
How it happened: As soon as the plane approached Lithuanian airspace, Belarusian authorities sent a fighter jet to accompany the plane to Minsk on account of a “bomb threat,” but that turned out to be a ruse. Lukashenko was after one of the passengers, dissident journalist and blogger Roman Protasevich, who was arrested once the plane landed in Minsk.
European leaders were stunned and outraged by Lukashenko’s move. Poland’s prime minister called it “an “unprecedented act of state terrorism” and Lithuania’s president asked NATO and the EU to “immediately react to the threat posed to international civil aviation by the Belarus regime.”
Big picture: Considered “Europe’s last dictator,” Lukashenko has held power in Belarus for almost 27 years, and his authoritarian actions-including a brutal crackdown on protesters last year following a disputed election-are increasing tensions with the West.
Looking ahead…EU leaders are meeting in Brussels today for a summit. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said officials will discuss taking action in response to the “outrageous and illegal behavior” of the Belarusian regime.
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