Updated May 24, 2021 - World

Global outcry as Belarus accused of "hijacking" plane to detain activist

Former chief editor of a Telegram channel Nexta Roman Protasevich

Raman Pratasevich. Photo: Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images

European Union leaders were due to meet Monday to discuss possible sanctions against Belarus after a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania carrying an opposition activist was diverted to Minsk over a supposed bomb threat.

Why it matters: Raman Pratasevich, a journalist and opposition leader wanted by the Belarusian government, was detained at the Minsk airport once the plane landed. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted, "Those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned."

  • The UN's civil aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), said in a statement the landing "could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention," a treaty protecting airspace sovereignty.
  • Lithuanian Police said in a statement they had launched a pre-trial criminal investigation into the matter and would cooperate with prosecutors in other EU countries.

The state of play: The plane was flying over Belarus and was six miles from the Lithuanian border when Belarusian air traffic control told the pilots to divert to Minsk due to "a potential security risk on board," per the Washington Post.

  • The presidential press service said that President Alexander Lukashenko "personally ordered" a fighter jet to escort the flight down to the Minsk airport, according to AP.
  • Officials later confirmed no explosives were found on the airplane, per AP.
  • The flight continued on its way after the diversion to Minsk and landed in Lithuania later Sunday, Bloomberg reports.

Of note: Pratasevich co-founded the Telegram channel Nexta, which helped organize massive anti-government demonstrations last year, AP notes.

  • He has been living in exile in Lithuania for several years out of fear of being arrested in Belarus, where he faces up to 12 years in prison if convicted on charges of "inciting hatred and mass disorder," the New York Times reports.

What they're saying: Leaders in the U.S. and Europe have condemned the action. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for Pratasevich's "immediate release."

  • Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted that the U.S. "needs to consider restricting commercial air traffic into and over Belarus until this matter is resolved. No travelers can feel safe if state sponsored hijacking becomes acceptable."
  • Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) in a joint statement with European counterparts urged the ICAO to investigate the "reckless act," saying: "Using fighter aircraft to intercept a civilian Ryanair flight is an act of piracy on a route between two NATO and EU countries."
  • "We call on NATO and European Union States to put sanctions on the Lukashenka regime and suspend their ability to use Interpol and other international organizations to further attack democracy in Europe," the group added in its call for Pratasevich's release.

In Europe, exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in a statement urged the ICAO to investigate the incident, per WashPost.

  • The United Kingdom's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted that the U.K. was "alarmed" by Protasevich's arrest and warned "this outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications."

Editor's note: This article has been updated with new details throughout.

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