What was behind a jet’s diversion to Belarus?

The diversion of a Ryanair flight to Lithuania by Belarus, leading to the arrest of an opposition journalist who was a passenger, has sparked international outrage and calls for tough sanctions against the former Soviet republic.

WHAT HAPPENED ON THE FLIGHT?

Ryanair Flight FR4978, traveling Sunday from Athens to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, was in Belarus airspace about 6 miles from the Lithuanian border when it changed direction and turned toward the Belarusian capital of Minsk.

Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the pilots that there was a bomb threat against the jetliner and ordered them to land in Minsk. The Belarusian military scrambled a MiG-29 fighter jet in an apparent attempt to encourage the crew to comply with the orders of flight controllers.

Once the plane landed, Belarusian security agents arrested Raman Pratasevich, who ran a popular messaging app that helped organize mass demonstrations against President Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’ authoritarian leader. They also removed from the plane Pratasevich’s Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who studies at a Vilnius university.

Agents with dogs then checked the plane and the passenger luggage, and eventually let the flight continue to Vilnius hours later.

Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary described the move as “a case of state-sponsored hijacking … state-sponsored piracy.”

Opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich, who is accused of participating in an unsanctioned protest at the Kuropaty preserve, arrives for a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus April 10, 2017. 

Opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich, who is accused of participating in an unsanctioned protest at the Kuropaty preserve, arrives for a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus April 10, 2017. 

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WHY DID BELARUS DO IT?

To arrest Pratasevich, a 26-year-old activist and journalist who left Belarus in 2019 and faced charges there of inciting riots. He was a blogger and co-founder and editor of Nexta, a popular channel on the Telegram messaging app that was a key factor in organizing protests in Belarus after a presidential election in August 2020.

Lukashenko, who has run the nation of 9.3 million with an iron fist for over a quarter-century, was declared the election’s winner by a landslide, but the opposition and some election workers say the vote was rigged. Months of protests followed, representing the strongest challenge to Lukashenko’s rule since he took over in 1994 following the demise of the Soviet Union.

The Belarusian authorities have unleashed a brutal crackdown on demonstrations. More than 34,000 people have been arrested since August, including opposition activists, and thousands have been beaten and abused by police to try to stem the protests.

Pratasevich was charged in absentia with inciting mass riots, and he faces 15 years in prison if convicted. But the Belarusian state security agency, which still goes by its Soviet-era name, KGB, also has put him on a list of people suspected of involvement in terrorism. This move is a sign he could face more serious charges. Terrorism is punishable by death in Belarus, the only country in Europe that still has capital punishment.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko attends a meeting on the work of the economy in the current year in Minsk, Belarus, Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. (Maxim Guchek/BelTA Pool Photo via AP)

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko attends a meeting on the work of the economy in the current year in Minsk, Belarus, Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. (Maxim Guchek/BelTA Pool Photo via AP)

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WHAT’S THE INTERNATIONAL REACTION?

European Union leaders on Monday agreed on a set of sanctions against Belarus, including a ban on the use of the 27-nation bloc’s airspace and airports amid fury over the forced diversion of what EU leaders have called a brazen “hijacking.” 

The EU leaders also decided to slap individual sanction of officials linked to the operation, and called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to start an investigation into what they see as an unprecedented move and what some have called state terrorism.

The decisions at the summit will now be turned into action as soon as legal proceedings allow.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Lukashenko’s decision amounted to a “hijacking,” and Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called it a “state-sponsored terror act.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for Pratasevich’s release and supports “a full, transparent and independent investigation into this disturbing incident,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

On the global stage, Belarus can rely on its main sponsor and ally, Russia, which has provided political support and financial assistance to Lukashenko’s government amid the protests.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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