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Ryanair plane diverted ‘so blogger could be arrested’: Who is Roman Protasevich?

Roman Protasevich was flying from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, when the aircraft was forced to land in Minsk, where he was arrested.

Who is he?

The 26-year-old journalist worked for Poland-based online news service NEXTA, which broadcast footage of protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko last year.

They used the Telegram messenger app to broadcast at a time when it was hard for foreign media to report first-hand from the former Soviet state.

Mr Protasevich now works for Belamova, a different Telegram channel.

He faces extremism charges in Belarus, including organising mass riots and inciting social hatred, related to the protests late last year.

He denies these allegations but could face up to 15 years in jail if convicted.

A Ryanair aircraft, which was carrying Belarusian opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich and diverted to Belarus, where authorities detained him, lands at Vilnius Airport in Vilnius, Lithuania May 23, 2021. REUTERS/Andrius Sytas

Image:
The Ryanair flight later landed safely at Vilnius in Lithuania

Why is Mr Protasevich being targeted?

Sky’s Russia correspondent Diana Magnay said that NEXTA has been a prominent opposition voice in Belarus “showing what Alexander Lukashenko does in his country and how he has been trying to suppress the opposition”.

She said: “He [President Lukashenko] has been coming after journalists one after the other and has labelled NEXTA an extremist organisation and is trying to scare anyone in Belarus who is in acting in a journalistic capacity and clearly trying to scare anyone outside of Belarus too.”

Magnay added that the Belarusian president is “clearly scared of” Mr Protasevich, given the lengths he went to detain him.

“It’s an extraordinary thing to have done and I wonder how the international community will react seeing as Alexander Lukashenko, who has no authority for the likes of Ryanair, clearly threatened the Ryanair pilots and managed to get his own security agents on board and had this plane diverted and landed at Minsk.”

Roman Protasevich being detained by police in Belarus in 2017 during a protest

Image:
Mr Protasevich being detained by police in Belarus in 2017 during a protest

How did Mr Protasevich react to the ‘hijacking’ of the Ryanair flight?

Data from the flightradar24.com website showed the plane was diverted just two minutes before it was due to cross into Lithuanian airspace.

According to reports, Mr Protasevich had his head in his hands and was shaking when he realised the flight was heading for Minsk, instead of its scheduled destination of Vilnius.

A Lithuanian passenger named Mantas told Reuters news agency that Mr Protasevich had got out of his seat, opened an overhead locker, pulled out a laptop and a phone and gave them to a female companion.

Lithuania’s Delfi news outlet quoted another passenger as saying that the young blogger had told onlookers: “I’ll get the death penalty here” as he was led away.

The Belarusian department for organised crime control said that Mr Protasevich had been detained, but it deleted the statement from its Telegram channel later.

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February: Jailed for ‘crime’ of journalism in Belarus

What are things like in Belarus for those who oppose Mr Lukashenko?

Very difficult.

Belarus is often described as “Europe’s last dictatorship” and Mr Lukashenko has previously said his style is “authoritarian”.

The country has been tightly-controlled by Mr Lukashenko since 1994 and his opponents claim he rigged last year’s presidential election, which he won in a landslide.

He has cracked down on dissents – human rights groups say about 35,000 people have been detained since August. Dozens of them have been jailed.

Like Mr Protasevich, Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya operates from Lithuania.

In terms of press freedom, Reporters Without Borders ranks the country as 158th out of 180 nations, saying journalists were “subjected to an unprecedented crackdown in an attempt to cover up the massive street protests in response to the contested presidential election result”.

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