The international political, media, and human rights communities are calling for sanctions and concrete action following the “state-sponsored hijacking” of a Ryanair plane by the Belarus government and the subsequent arrest of opposition journalist Roman Protasevich.
Yesterday, a Ryanair plane flying from Greece to Lithuania was forcibly diverted to Belarus. The Belarus government claimed they had received a bomb threat and a MiG-29 plane escorted the aircraft to Minsk airport.
No explosives were found but six individuals who were initially on the plane, were not on it when it finally continued on its way to Vilnius. Ryanair failed to mention this in their first press release, but CEO Michael O’Leary today acknowledged several people had left the plane at Minsk and told Irish radio Newstalk the forced diversion of the aircraft was “state-sponsored piracy”.
Condemnation for ‘thuggish regime’
The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Teresa Ribeiro, said that she found Protosevich’s detention and its circumstances very concerning. She added that she would be following the case.
Amidst ongoing clampdown on media in #Belarus & severe restrictions on freedom of expression, I find today's detention of Telegram channel editor Raman #Pratasevich & the circumstances around it very concerning. The authorities must show restraint. I will closely follow the case.
— OSCE media freedom (@OSCE_RFoM) May 23, 2021
Christopher Deloire, Secretary-General of Reporters Without Borders, also called for sanctions against the Belarusian Regime, adding that the European Council was responsible for obtaining “concrete results”.
We welcome the intensity of the international reactions, especially European ones. Beyond the firmness of principles, today's European Council must prove its capacity to obtain concrete results. The Belarusian regime must suffer opprobrium, but also sanctions. #PressFreedom pic.twitter.com/5cUW1jf3hz
— Christophe Deloire (@cdeloire) May 24, 2021
Lotte Leicht, the EU Director at Human Rights Watch, condemned “Lukashenko’s thuggish regime” for “arresting a critical journalist”. She called for an end to impunity.
Incredible.#Lukashenko's thuggish regime force a commercial plane -en route from one #EU state to another EU state- to land in #Belarus .. for the purpose of arresting a critical journalist on board the airliner.
— Lotte Leicht (@LotteLeicht1) May 23, 2021
Vice-President for Values and Transparency at the EU, Vera Jourova said this was an example of “how far a dictatorship can go to silence a critical voice, to attack freedom of speech.” She added that democracies should come together to defend their values and take action.
This is how far a dictatorship can go to silence a critical voice, to attack freedom of speech –
hijacking a plane to arrest journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich.
He and all passengers must be released.
Democracies should stand together, defend their values, and act. https://t.co/xEGB5M0uhZ
— Věra Jourová (@VeraJourova) May 23, 2021
Bill Browder, author, and Head of the Global Magnitsky Justice campaign posted several tweets on the incident, calling out Ryanair for failing to mention that a total of six people, including the journalist and his girlfriend and “four mysterious Russians” were disembarked in Minsk when the plane was hijacked.
While we are all paying attention to Belarus and the illegal kidnapping of Roman Protasevich off the Ryanair flight today, let’s not forget about the 405 other major political prisoners who Lukashenko has taken hostage https://t.co/bXL7rmWGBh
— Bill Browder (@Billbrowder) May 23, 2021
He called for “total financial blockade” on financial transactions, Magnitsky sanctions, and for people to remember there are some 405 other major political prisoners that have been taken hostage by the Lukashenko regime.
He added that there was a need for sanctions to be levied against Belarus, to discourage other dictators from similar activity.
President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen called the act “outrageous and illegal” and said that such behavior will have consequences. She said those responsible must be sanctioned and the journalist should be released immediately.
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.
EUCO will discuss tomorrow action to take.
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) May 23, 2021
Charges of extremism, inciting hatred
The 26-year-old journalist had been working for Poland-based news portal NEXTA which broadcast footage from anti-Lukashenko protests via Telegram. This took place during a time when it was difficult for foreign media to do any first-hand reporting from the protests. He then switched to another Telegram-based channel called Belamova.
In Belarus, he is facing charges of extremism, including inciting social hatred, organising riots, and masterminding the protests that started last year. He claims innocence but faces up to 15 years in prison, or potentially the death penalty.
Social unrest intensified in Belarus in May 2020 following the election of President Alexander Lukashenko in an election that was widely believed to be rigged. The protests intensified through the year and have seen thousands of people arbitrarily detained, including many journalists.
There have been widespread reports of torture, ill-treatment and death in captivity. Many media workers have found themselves prosecuted just for doing their job.
Reporters Without Borders calls Belarus “the most dangerous country in Europe for media personnel” and it ranks 158th in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index.