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Roman Protasevicz, the former editor-in-chief and founder of Belarus’s most popular opposition Telegram channel Nexta, boarded a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius on Sunday. According to passenger reports, once the aircraft entered the Belarusian airspace, a group of KGB agents who followed the dissident journalist aboard started a fight with the cabin crew, claiming there was a bomb on the plane. In line with security procedures, the pilots sent an SOS signal and began an emergency landing in Minsk.
The Belarusian Ministry of Defense sent a MiG-29 fighter jet to intercept the passenger plane and enable it to "land safely". No bomb was found on board.
Mr Protasevicz might be facing a death penalty.
Last year, Lukashenko’s regime has put the 26 years old Mr Protasevicz on the country’s list of terrorists. In November, the Belarusian ministry of foreign affairs appealed to Poland to immediately extradite him and Nexta’s co-founder Stepan Putila. Both journalists have been living in exile in Poland.
Polish authorities rejected the request.
A Belarusian Investigative Committee issued an international letter of indictment, charging both men with violating three sections of the Criminal Code, namely "organizing mass riots", "organizing group actions that grossly violate public order", and "committing intentional acts aimed at inciting social hostility due to professional affiliation".
Under Belarusian law, Mr Protasevich faces life in prison or even a death penalty.
The aircraft is registered in Poland
The Ryanair plane which carried Mr Protasevicz, a four-year-old Boeing 737, is registered in Poland. Warsaw is therefore directly affected by the incident.
According to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, aircrafts are the territory of the state in which they are registered. Therefore, it may be argued that forcing down the plane and arresting Mr Protasevicz was in fact an act of kidnapping a Belarusian citizen from the Polish territory.
International reactions. Polish officials speak of „state terrorism"
The incident has drawn reactions from politicians and state officials around the world.
In Poland, Mr Protasevicz's arrest was condemned by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who had asked the European Council to expand Monday's agenda to include a discussion about "immediate sanctions against A. Lukashenko’s regime". "I condemn in the strongest terms the detention of Roman Protasevich by Belarussian authorities, after a Ryanair passenger aircraft was hijacked. This is a reprehensible act of state terrorism" – he wrote on Twitter.
Andrzej Duda, the Polish President, called the act "another example of violating the fundamental principles of international law", adding that the "international community cannot remain indifferent" and that the actions against the Belarusian authorities should be "decisive".
- This is an act of state terrorism committed on Lukashenka's orders- Tweeted the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Zbigniew Rau. -Let me remind that terrorists of all kinds are enemies of humankind, have to be condemned and prosecuted- he added.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the chargé d'affaires of the Belarusian Embassy in Poland, Aleksandra Czesnowska. Shortly after her visit, the ministry issued an official statement. It indicates that the diplomat was summoned to express the government’s protest against the seizure of an aircraft registered in Poland. - Such actions bear the hallmarks of an act of state terrorism. By restricting the freedom of decision of the captain of the aircraft, the authorities of the Republic of Belarus have caused a threat to air traffic and to the lives of passengers and crew of the aircraft. The circumstances of this incident must be immediately clarified before the competent international instances - reads the statement.
Charles Michel, the head of the European Council, also spoke out. On Sunday, he expressed his concern and called on the Belarusian authorities to immediately release the plane and its passengers.
The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, issued a similar statement. "It is utterly unacceptable. All passengers must be allowed to continue their travel to Vilnius immediately and their safety ensured" - she wrote on Twitter. She also announced that such actions must have "consequences."
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda appealed to NATO and EU allies for an immediate response. - I demand that the Belarusian regime immediately release the detainee and allow him to continue his journey to Vilnius, he stated.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the Belarusian authorities as well, calling the act of diverting the passenger plane "shocking" and "deeply concerning". "The United States strongly condemns the forced diversion of a flight between two EU member states and the subsequent removal and arrest of journalist Raman Pratasevich in Minsk. We demand his immediate release" – he wrote in an official statement.
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