It sounds like an audacious terrorist attack – not the actions of a nation state. The more you hear about what happened in the skies above Belarus on Sunday, the more reckless it appears.
An EU-owned, EU-registered plane full of EU citizens travelling between two EU capitals was hijacked in order to seize an EU-recognised political refugee who now faces the death penalty.
This extraordinary act of aggression has no precedent in history.
Ryanair flight 4978, flying between Greece and Lithuania, was convinced to redirect to Belarus’s capital Minsk.
Air traffic controllers lied to the crew, telling them there was a bomb on board, all the while shadowed by a MiG-29 fighter jet.
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However, Belarus is not an ordinary state, it is a rogue dictatorship closely linked with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Last summer crowds of up to 200,000 gathered in Minsk for days, protesting over President Alexander Lukashenko’s handling of Covid and a rigged election.
Sanctions were enforced and yet nine months on Lukashenko has been emboldened to commit this act of state terrorism.
There are reports Belarusian KGB secret service agents were on board and started a fight with Ryanair crew, before the aircraft – and its terrified 171 passengers – had its unexpected landing.
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In Minsk, dissident journalist and blogger Roman Protasevich, the founder of 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 is diverted to Minsk. He said there’s a death penalty awaiting him there.
“We sat for an hour after the landing. Then they started releasing passengers and took those two. We did not see them again.”
Belarus state media said the decision to intervene had been ordered personally by President Lukashenko after the Nexta channel was used to organise those protests against his regime and 26-year-old Protasevich was charged with inciting riots.
In repsonse there has been a global chorus of condemnation.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that “the outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences. Those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned. Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately,”
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that “this outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications”.
US diplomats also weighed in, with US Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher described the actions as “abhorrent” tweeting: “Lukashenka and his regime today showed again its contempt for the international community and its citizens.”
Kanstantsin Dzehtsiarou, a Belarusian professor of human rights at Liverpool University, said Lukashenko wouldn’t have surprised citizens used to his flouting of the law.
“If I didn’t know it was true I would think it was a joke., says Kanstantsin.
It follows the same pattern of contempt of international, and domestic, law, showing that the government thinks it can get away with anything..”
Kanstantsin says Lukashenko has become increasingly audacious after his brutal suppression of an uprising last year was met with few reprisals by the international community.
More than 6,000 protesters were arrested and hundreds jailed.
While Europe’s modest sanctions included a travel ban and freezing bank accounts of 88 individuals, perhaps the most damaging consequence was Belarus being banned from this year’s Eurovision song contest after repeatedly submitting songs calling for “no dissent”.
Kanstantsin says: “First, there were the forceful dissolution of peace protests.
“Next, the torture of activists who participated, which is prohibited under all sorts of 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 by international law.
“We saw journalists arrested who have spent month in prison, and last month some people accused of plotting against the president were taken from Russia and placed in Belarusian prisons.
“Yet the reaction of the global community has been extremely slow. For instance, the UN human rights council has only just established a panel to start looking at torture allegations.
“That creates the feeling of immunity, that Lukashenko is actually invincible.
“It’s also the feeling that dominates in Belarus among ordinary people, people think that he can do whatever he wants and nobody can do anything to stop him.”
But he says diverting a commercial airline is a significant escalation. “Collaboration is crucial in civil aviation, the day-to-day interaction between countries would not be possible without it and now Belarus has been found to have lied to an air crew and that interferences with the key fabric of international relations.
“It shows that Lukashenko is not just a threat to his people, he’s a threat to the whole of Europe.”
It’s not the first time Lukashenko, who has ruled the country for the last 27 years and who George W Bush famously referred to as the “last dictator of Europe”, has been accused of going to extreme lengths to hunt down his political enemies.
Earlier this year, a secretly-recorded audio emerged from 2012 believed to have captured Belarusian KGB chairman Vadim Zaitsev plotting the assassination of three of the president’s critics who had fled to Germany and lived in exile.
In the recording, in which he said over £1million had been put in a dedicated account to finance the killings, he said: “We’ll plant [a bomb] and so on and this f***ing rat will be taken down in f***ing pieces – legs in one direction, arms in the other direction.
“If everything [looks like] natural causes, it won’t get into people’s minds the same way.”
Lukashenko’s track record is one of the reasons Kanstantsin is concerned for the well-being of Raman Pratasevich, co-founder of the opposition Nexta channel on Telegram, which was used for mobilising street protests.
The journalist faces extremism charges in Belarus, including organising mass riots and inciting social hatred, and could face 15 years in jail if convicted of several charges. But Kanstantsin believes he could face more serious charges.
He says: “Since August people are being beaten up for less that what he is accused of, so my main concern is that he can easily be ill-treated.
“At the moment he is accused of inciting riots which can face up to eight years in prison, but they might easily change their indictment to something more serious like terrorism, for which he could face the death penalty.”
He says that this time Europe and the US need to be swift and tough in showing Lukashenko he can’t get away with flouting international law.
Lithuania was the first to announce sanctions, announcing that all flights to and from Lithuanian airports must from midnight avoid Belarusian air space.
Other airlines have announced they would also not be using Belarusian airspace.
And the French presidency said a request had been sent to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to suspend international flights over Belarusian air space.
Banning the Belarusian state carrier Belavia from European airports would also be discussed, as well as unspecified measures regarding ground transport links.
It has also been suggested that sanctions are placed on Belarus – or that institutions such as the European Investment Bank should not participate in projects that finance Minsk.
Other leaders, who believe that Lukashenko’s actions would have been endorsed by Russia, said Putin must also be punished for the hijacking.
Radoslaw Sikorski, a former Polish foreign minister and now member of the European parliament, proposed halting Russia’s huge Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany.
Kanstantsin agrees. “Both he and Putin needs to be held accountable, it can’t just be swept under the rug.
“If the West acts, it will send a very clear message to both Lukashenko and Putin that they can’t get away with anything.
“If we don’t, the next time it might not be an plane that is forcibly landed, but one that is shot down. Doing nothing will empower them, and that’s a very dangerous feeling.”
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