By Grace Hwang
International outrage has been mounting ever since what is being called a “state-sponsored hijacking” that occurred on Sunday, May 23. A Ryanair flight carrying about 120 passengers headed to Vilnius, Lithuania from Athens, Greece, was intercepted by a Belarusian fighter jet mid-flight and ordered to land in Belarus’ capital, Minsk, due to “a potential security threat on board”.
However, once the passenger plane landed, it was clear that there was no such threat. Instead, it was the work of the Belarusian government in order to arrest 26-year-old journalist Roman Protasevich. Known as an outspoken critic of the authoritarian Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, who has been ruling for the past 27 years, Protasevich had been living in Lithuania in exile for the last few years, fearing imprisonment for up to 12 years on charges of inciting hatred and mass disorder, as well as being on the government’s terrorist registry. Immediately after the plane landed, he and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were taken off the aircraft, and both were arrested later that night.
The following day, videos of the two in detention appeared on pro-government social media channels. Protasevich said that employees were “correctly” treating him “in compliance with the law.” He also “confessed to organizing mass riots in the city of Minsk”. However, supporters hardly bought this information, noticing that he had bruises on his eyes and suspecting that he had a broken nose covered with makeup, concluding that he was forced to say such statements. A similar video was made with Sapega, in which she confessed that she was “the editor of the Telegram channel Black Book of Belarus that publishes personal information about employees of the interior ministry”, a confession that could lead her to spend years in jail. This admission was also widely believed to be coerced, as Sapega was not known for her involvement in protests, much less be the head of one of the most widely critical platforms in the country.
But President Lukashenko continues to stand by his bomb story, insisting that his actions were because, “I had to protect people, I was thinking about the country’s security.” While a spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his support for Belarus, most others have condemned Lukashenko’s behavior. The European Union imposed new sanctions against Belarus, including a ban of the use of EU airspace and airports. President Biden called this incident “outrageous” and a “direct affront to international norms”, and many other European leaders voiced similar concerns.
However, many believe that these sanctions and critiques won’t do much to change the nature of Lukashenko’s regime. His brutal crackdowns against those who speak out against him have increased over the years, and it’s likely that he will continue to do so, silencing his critics by any means necessary.