It sounds like a bold terrorist attack – not the acts of a nation state. The more you hear about what happened in the sky over Belarus on Sunday, the more reckless it seems.
An EU-owned, EU-registered plane full of EU citizens traveling between two EU capitals was hijacked to seize an EU-recognized political refugee who is now facing the death penalty.
This extraordinary act of aggression has no historical precedent.
Ryanair flight 4978 between Greece and Lithuania was convinced to divert to the Belarusian capital Minsk.
Air traffic controllers lied to the crew and told them there was a bomb on board while being shadowed by a MiG-29 fighter plane.
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However, Belarus is not an ordinary state, but a rogue dictatorship closely linked to Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Last summer, up to 200,000 people gathered in Minsk for days to protest against President Alexander Lukashenko’s handling of Covid and a rigged election.
Sanctions were enforced and yet Lukashenko was encouraged to commit this act of state terrorism for nine months.
There are reports that Belarusian KGB intelligence agents were on board and started a fight with the Ryanair crew before the plane – and its frightened 171 passengers – made its unexpected landing.
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In Minsk, dissident journalist and blogger Roman Protasevich, founder of the online news channel Nexta, was arrested before the rest of the passengers were sent on their way.
Passenger Marius Rutkauskas, who spoke after the plane arrived in Vilnius hours later, said Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, who was also detained, were sitting behind him.
He said: “He freaked out when the pilot said the plane had been diverted to Minsk. He said there was a death penalty waiting for him there.
“We sat for an hour after landing. Then they released passengers and took these two away. We didn’t see her again. “
Belarusian state media said the decision to intervene was personally ordered by President Lukashenko after the Nexta Canal was used to organize these protests against his regime and the 26-year-old Protasevich was charged with unrest.
There was a global chorus of condemnation in response.
The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, tweeted: “The outrageous and illegal behavior of the regime in Belarus will have consequences. Those responsible for the hijacking of Ryanair must be sanctioned. The journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately. “
British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said that “this unusual move by Lukashenko will have serious consequences”.
US diplomats also weighed in, and US Ambassador to Belarus, Julie Fisher, described the actions as a “hideous” tweet: “Lukashenka and his regime today again showed their contempt for the international community and its citizens.”
Kanstantsin Dzehtsiarou, a Belarusian professor of human rights at Liverpool University, said Lukashenko did not surprise citizens who were used to his violations of the law.
“If I didn’t know that it was true, I would think it was a joke,” says Kanstantsin.
It follows the same pattern of contempt for international and domestic law and shows that the government believes it can get away with anything. “
According to Kanstantsin, Lukashenko has grown bolder after his brutal suppression of an uprising suffered little reprisals from the international community over the past year.
More than 6,000 protesters were arrested and hundreds detained.
While Europe’s modest sanctions included a travel ban and bank account freezes for 88 people, perhaps the most damaging consequence was Belarus being banned from this year’s Eurovision song contest after repeated submissions of songs calling for “no objection”.
Kanstantsin says: “First there was the violent breakup of peace protests.
“Next, the torture of activists who participated, which is prohibited by all possible international conventions and a clear violation of human rights.
“Then the human rights defenders were persecuted and imprisoned, which was absolutely arbitrary and clearly prohibited under international law.
“We saw journalists arrested who had spent a month in jail, and last month some people who were accused of pillaging against the president were taken from Russia to Belarusian prisons.
“However, the response from the world community has been extremely slow. For example, the UN Human Rights Council has just set up a body to deal with allegations of torture.
“That creates the feeling of immunity that Lukashenko is actually invincible.
“It’s also the feeling that ordinary people have in Belarus. People think he can do what he wants and nothing can be done to stop him.”
However, the diversion of a commercial airline is a significant escalation. “Collaboration is vital in civil aviation. Without them, daily interaction between countries would not be possible. It has now been found that Belarus lied to a flight crew and that this is affecting the key structure of international relations.
“It shows that Lukashenko is not just a threat to his people, but a threat to all of Europe.”
It is not the first time that Lukashenko, who has ruled the country for 27 years and is called “Europe’s last dictator” by George W. Bush, has been accused of making extreme efforts to hunt down his political enemies.
Earlier this year, a secretly recorded audio from 2012 was released allegedly capturing Belarusian KGB chairman Vadim Zaitsev, who was plotting to assassinate three of the president’s critics who fled to Germany and were in exile.
On the record, where he said over £ 1 million had been transferred to a special account to fund the murders, he said, “We are going to plant [a bomb] and so on and that fucking rat gets broken into fucking pieces – legs in one direction, arms in the other direction.
“If everything [looks like] natural causes, it won’t come to people’s mind in the same way. “
Lukashenko’s track record is one of the reasons Kanstantsin is concerned for the well-being of Raman Pratasevich, the co-founder of the opposition Nexta channel on Telegram, which has been used to mobilize street protests.
The journalist is charged with extremism in Belarus, including organizing mass uprisings and inciting social hatred. If convicted on multiple charges, he faces 15 years in prison. But Kanstantsin believes he could face more serious charges.
He says, “Since August people have been beaten up for less than what he’s been accused of. So my main concern is that he can be easily mistreated.
“At the moment he is charged with rioting that could last up to eight years in prison, but they could easily change their charges to something more serious like terrorism for which he could face the death penalty.”
He says Europe and the US have to be quick and tough this time around to show Lukashenko that he cannot break international law.
Lithuania was the first country to announce sanctions and announced that all flights to and from Lithuanian airports must avoid Belarusian airspace from midnight.
Other airlines have announced that they will not use Belarusian airspace either.
And the French Presidency said the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) had received a request to suspend international flights over Belarusian airspace.
In addition, the ban of the Belarusian state airline Belavia from European airports as well as unspecified measures regarding ground transport links would be discussed.
It has also been suggested that sanctions be imposed on Belarus – or that institutions like the European Investment Bank should not participate in projects that fund Minsk.
Other leaders, who believe that Lukashenko’s actions have been approved by Russia, said Putin must also be punished for the kidnapping.
Radoslaw Sikorski, former Polish Foreign Minister and now a member of the European Parliament, proposed stopping Russia’s huge Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany.
Kanstantsin agrees. “Both he and Putin must be held accountable, it cannot simply be swept under the carpet.
“If the West acts, it will send a very clear message to Lukashenko and Putin that they cannot get away with anything.”
“If we don’t do that, next time it might not be a plane that was violently landed, it might be one that will be shot down. If you do nothing, you will be empowered, and that is a very dangerous feeling.”