As international reaction to Belarus’ audacious act of airplane piracy comes fast and furious, those who know the journalist snatched off that Ryanair flight Sunday worry deeply about his fate and that of the many other reporters and bloggers now languishing in Belarusian prisons.
“For us it’s very close,” Alexander Lukashuk, the director the Belarus service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), told Fox News. “And a bigger thing in terms of the human dimension than hijacking a plane, which is in itself quite amazing.”
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Belarus under six-term President Alexander Lukashenko always had a “human rights and democratic values issue,” Lukashuk said. “After this hijacking, the U.S., EU and NATO will have to look at Lukashenko as a security threat.”
Belarus sent a MiG fighter jet to force the flight from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, to divert to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, saying they feared there was a bomb on board. The plane had crossed into Belarusian airspace when this occurred.
No sooner had the plane landed when police arrested 26-year-old Roman Protasevich, a popular and swashbuckling blogger and one of the founders of the Telegram channel Nexta, where many around the world get their news about Belarus and where they watched the protests spread across the country after last August’s disputed presidential election. There was no bomb on the plane.
Protasevich cut his teeth at U.S.-funded RFE/RL in a fellowship program. After Nexta, he jumped to another Telegram channel, Belamova, to fill the role of Igor Losik, who was also arrested by Belarus authorities and faces a 12-year prison sentence. Lukashuk worked with both of them.
“[Protasevich is] a very brave young person, never thinking about his security, very independent. Not quite a traditional journalist. He likes to be alone, play by his own rules,” recalled Lukashuk.
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Having discovered himself on an official list of “terrorists” for having helped organize “riots,” Protasevich fled to Poland and then on to Lithuania for his safety. There were never riots in Belarus; they were peaceful demonstrations. Belarusians often point out not so much as a shop window was smashed when protesters took to the streets day after day, and then Sunday after Sunday, for many weeks.
Those stopped as Lukashenko and his security services tightened the screws, jailing or fining opposition figures, journalists and anyone they spotted showing sympathy toward the opposition. Recently someone was fined for wearing red-and-white socks. Red and white are the colors of the movement for change and for getting Lukashenko, often called “Europe’s Last Dictator,” to go. But RFE/RL’s Lukashuk detects the hand of Moscow.
“We spoke to Roman Protasevich’s dad, who is a retired colonel. He was stripped of his rank together with 80 other military personnel 10 days ago by Lukashenko and he told us Belarus security services couldn’t execute such an operation on their own,” Lukashuk said. He added that Russia is quite adept at going after dissidents in the West. When asked what Russia would gain from this incident, Lukashuk said, “It’s multiple messages. They will gain whatever they want from it. Of course, there is one message: They are exercising their muscle.”
Quite a few people are suggesting Russia may have been behind this, but at this point it is all speculation. Russia’s Foreign Ministry has defended Minsk’s actions.
But as one Russian journalist pointed out, “We should be scared.”
At least in the USSR there were boundaries. Now all bets are off.