Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian president of Belarus, ordered a fighter jet on Sunday to intercept a Ryanair plane headed from Greece to Lithuania, forcing it to land in Minsk so a dissident journalist on board could be arrested.
The act was immediately condemned by European leaders, including Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, who called it "abhorrent," and Poland Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who described it as "an act of state terrorism."
While flying over Belarus, the plane's pilots were told by Belarusian air traffic controllers there was "a potential security threat on board," and they needed to divert to Minsk, Ryanair said in a statement. Belarusian state media said a bomb threat had been called in, and Lukashenko ordered an MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the plane to the Minsk airport.
Once the plane landed, authorities arrested passenger Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old dissident journalist who has lived in exile in Lithuania for the last few years. He is the co-founder and former editor of NEXTA Telegram channel, an opposition outlet that is one of the few still in existence following last year's protests against Lukashenko amid a contested presidential election. In 2020, Protasevich was placed on Belarus' list of terrorists, and stands accused of inciting hatred and mass disorder; if convicted, he faces 12 years in prison.
One of Protasevich's fellow passengers told Agence France-Presse the journalist "was not screaming," but it was "clear that he was very much afraid. It looked like if the window had been open, he would have jumped out of it." After seven hours, the plane was able to take off, and landed in Lithuania 35 minutes later. Belarusian law enforcement officials said no bomb was found on board, and investigators have opened a criminal case into the fake bomb threat. Ryanair said in its statement that "nothing untoward was found."
Lukashenko has been in power for more than 26 years, and is often referred to as "Europe's Last Dictator." He was able to crack down on last year's massive protests with the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Belarus is not part of the European Union, but in 2020 the bloc imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and other top officials for "violent repression and intimidation of peaceful protesters, opposition members, and journalists." Read more at The New York Times.