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Illustration by Security Management

Flight Diverted in Effort to Arrest Opposition Journalist

Belarusian authorities diverted a Ryanair flight traveling from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sunday because of an alleged bomb onboard the airplane. A Belarusian fighter jet escorted the flight far off course to land in Minsk, but no explosives were found. Instead, a journalist was arrested and escorted off the flight.

According to NPR, 26-year-old Roman Protasevich—former editor and founder of Belarusian opposition blog Nexta and a social media channel—played a key role in organizing anti-government protests in Belarus last year, and he lives in Lithuania. He is wanted in Belarus on multiple charges. Witnesses onboard the aircraft said that Protasevich was frightened when the aircraft was diverted and told fellow passengers that he would face the death penalty in Belarus, the BBC reported. He covered the events of the disputed 2020 presidential election of Alexander Lukashenko, after which Protasevich was charged with terrorism and inciting riots.

Sofia Sapega, a Russian student Protasevich was traveling with, was also arrested.

The forced diversion of the airplane between two EU member states to arrest a journalist has sparked outrage, as well as a variety of potential sanctions and consequences. EU leaders and Nato ambassadors are expected to discuss the incident this week, and the BBC reported that a package of measures are in development, including a ban on flights over Belarus and a suspension of ground transport links.

Lithuania has advised its citizens against travel to Belarus and urged those in the country to leave promptly.

“This was a case of state-sponsored hijacking... state-sponsored piracy,” said Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary to Irish Newstalk radio.

European Council President Charles Michel released a statement on 23 May condemning the forced landing of the Ryanair flight, adding: “I call on Belarus authorities to immediately release the detained passenger and to fully guarantee his rights…. The incident will not remain without consequences.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also condemned the diversion and said the United States is working with its EU partners to respond.

“This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens," Blinken said in a statement. "Initial reports suggesting the involvement of the Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane are deeply concerning and require full investigation.”