May 24, 2021, 6:11 p.m.
Nine months after his homeland Belarus broke out in protests against rigged presidential elections, 26-year-old Roman Protasevich had just been on vacation in Greece with his girlfriend. Protasevich is the founder and former editor of the Nexta channel of the encrypted messaging app Telegram, which played a pivotal role in coordinating protests that drew hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets last fall.
After living in exile in Lithuania since 2019, like many Belarusian journalists, he was used to being harassed by the country's excellent security services. When he was preparing for a flight from Athens to Vilnius on Sunday morning, he was SMS colleagues that he was being followed by a suspicious-looking man who tried to snap photos of his passport as he boarded the plane.
"We get death threats at least a dozen times a day, so we're pretty used to them," said Tadeusz Giczan, editor-in-chief of Nexta.
On the way north through Belarusian airspace, the country's authorities apparently triggered a fake bomb threat and messed up a fighter jet in order to divert the Ryanair flight to the Belarusian capital Minsk. It was a brazen air piracy attack to arrest Protasevich, who was put on the country's terrorist watch list for his opposition activities last year and who could now face the death penalty if convicted of terrorist crimes.
"We didn't think something like this could actually happen. It turned out we were wrong," said Giczan.
The brazen decision to snatch a journalist from the sky was quickly recognized by US and European officials as "Kidnapping" and an act of air piracy that destroyed international norms. Many now fear that without a robust response, it could set a terrible precedent for rogue states to outsmart planes in pursuit of their adversaries.
Others see it as an important test case for whether the European Union can stand up for the safety of its own citizens. "[W] what happened yesterday is even more serious than what you describe," said Nathalie Loiseau, Member of the European Parliament and former French Minister for European Affairs. tweeted to the President of the European Council, Charles Michel. "It is a litmus test of the EU's ability to be respected. Please ensure that EU leaders fail this time," she added.
The chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Robert Menendez, issued a joint statement with senior European lawmakers calling for immediate reprisals, including new sanctions against the regime of Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, banning Belarus the International Civil Aviation Organization and a ban on all overflights from Belarus, including flights to and from the country. "
"This act of state terror and kidnapping is a threat to anyone traveling in Europe and beyond," Menendez wrote in the joint statement with his colleagues from the Czech Republic, Latvia, Germany, Lithuania, Ireland, Poland and the United Kingdom .
European airlines like Wizz Air, AirBaltic, Scandinavian Airlines and others announced on Monday that they would reroute flights to avoid Belarusian airspace; The UK Secretary of Transport ordered UK airlines to do the same. As a sign that the fallout for Lukashenko will go beyond the borders of the EU, the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also ordered the suspension of direct Ukrainian flights to and from Belarus.
On Monday, pro-government outlets released a seemingly highly scripted video of Protasevich confessing to plotting mass riots in Minsk and claiming he was not ill-treated by police. Protasevich's family and colleagues fear he will be tortured in prison.
A wave of unprecedented mass street protests erupting across the country in response to rigged elections last August was met with violent violence from police and security services. Since then, around 35,000 people have been arrested after reports of systematic beatings and torture surfaced in the country's prisons. Almost 400 political prisoners are currently behind bars.
Journalists and opposition activists left Belarus in droves. Like Protasevich, many settled in the capital of neighboring Lithuania, as well as in Kiev [Ukraine] and Warsaw [Poland], which now feel uncomfortably close to Belarusian borders.
"Nobody can feel safe," said Franak Viacorka, spokesman for foreign affairs for Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who now also lives in Vilnius. Viacorka said Tikhanovskaya, whose security is provided by the Lithuanian government, has been warned that Belarus may attempt to land flights to catch them but it has been seen as a distant possibility. "Nobody believed that the airspace could be the site of this political war," he said.
The bold decision to ground a civil airliner in pursuit of a dissident may be unprecedented, but Belarus' extraterritorial pursuit of its adversaries is not. A Report published Earlier this year, Freedom House documented 608 cases of people physically attacked by authoritarian states overseas since 2014, including assassinations, kidnappings, assaults, detentions and illegal deportations.
In August 2020, Rwandan officials kidnapped Paul Rusesabagina, who inspired the film Hotel Rwanda, in Dubai. As a severe critic of the country's president, he was returned to Rwanda, where he was arrested and charged with terrorism, which was condemned by international human rights organizations.
Fifty-eight percent of the transnational repression cases documented in the Freedom House report concerned false terrorism charges – as could be the case with the Sunday kidnapping – as authoritarian states attempt to cover up their raids under the guise of national security.
It's hard to tell if such cases are on the rise, said Nate Schenkkan, director of research strategy at Freedom House, but he said two things may have encouraged despots to prosecute their critics. The first is new technology that has enabled exiles to send their messages to audiences at home, but has also expanded the possibilities for government surveillance. The second is that they could get away with it.
"There really weren't any consistent and strong ramifications for these activities," Schenkkan said.
Human rights activists were frustrated by the decision of the Biden government not to impose any punishment on the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite assessing the murder of the secret service Washington Post Columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 on maintaining United States working relations with Saudi Arabia.
“In diplomacy, everyone is always watching everyone else. And the perception of others is shaped by how one country or group of countries treats another, ”said Nigel Gould-Davies, former British ambassador to Belarus.
It is unclear how sanctions alone could convince Lukashenko to release Protasevich. The Belarusian head of state is already seen as an international pariah, and the autocratic, largely state-controlled economy in Belarus is poorly integrated into the West, which offers few leverage points. Opportunities include expanding sanctions against state-owned companies, banning the national airline Belavia from landing at EU airports, leaving Belarus from the International Civil Aviation Organization, or even booting the country from Interpol. Minsk has issued false red communications from Interpol, somewhat similar to an international arrest warrant, to harass and disrupt the overseas travel of critics.
Since the outbreak of protests last August, the Belarusian government has waged a steady and brutal war of attrition against the citizens of the country, where people have been arrested for simply showing or even wearing the red and white flag of the opposition Socks with the same colors. Tut.by, the country's most popular news site that is not controlled by the state, was shut down early last week. Later that week, it became known that opposition activist Vitold Ashurak had died in unclear circumstances in prison, where he was sentenced to five years in prison for participating in anti-government protests.
International attention to the crisis had waned and the demonstrations waned as the authorities imposed a fine on the protesters. Sunday's decision to intercept a civilian airline with a fighter plane, however, promises to put Belarus back at the top of Europe's agenda.
“Frankly, what Lukashenko did today doesn't make any sense. Road activity has been the lowest in over a year, ”Giczan said in an interview on Sunday.