Belarus’s dictator grounds a plane to arrest a critical journalist

Poland’s prime minister calls it “an unprecedented act of state terrorism”

ALEXANDER LUKASHENKO, the embattled dictator of Belarus, has committed what is tantamount to an act of piracy, forcing a Ryanair passenger plane to make an unscheduled stop in his capital on May 23rd in order to arrest the editor of an internet channel, NEXTA, that has been reporting on his crackdown since he stole an election last August.

Roman Protasevich, aged 26, was taken off the plane, which was flying from Athens to Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. Citing what it said was evidence that there were explosives on board, the authorities forced the aircraft to land in Minsk as it passed through Belarusian airspace on its way to neighbouring Lithuania, sending a MiG fighter plane to escort the Ryanair jet down. The state news agency later reported that no explosives had been found, and it seems certain that the incident was invented purely as a way of arresting the journalist.

NEXTA has long been a thorn in Mr Lukashenko’s flesh. Initially on YouTube and subsequently on Telegram, an encrypted mobile-phone app, the site has since 2015 been a vehicle for criticism and mockery of the autocrat. But it was only last summer that its popularity exploded. In August Mr Lukashenko was announced as the winner of an election in which he had barred several popular candidates from running. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of one of the blocked candidates, ran instead of her husband, and most observers believe that she actually won the election by a healthy margin. However, the official results gave Mr Lukashenko 80% of the vote in what was his sixth consecutive election victory. Ms Tikhanovskaya was subsequently deported to Lithuania, and now lives in Vilnius.

After huge protests broke out in Minsk and other cities, the authorities launched a campaign of beatings and arrests which has continued to this day, although the numbers have since dwindled as a result of intimidation. NEXTA and Telegram played a crucial role in organising the protests and disseminating videos of police brutality. At one point NEXTA’s subscriber base was said to cover a fifth of the entire population of Belarus. Mr Protasevich (pictured above, at one of the protests in 2017) was placed on a terrorist watchlist by Mr Lukashenko’s security forces, but must have considered himself safe in exile. As an alleged terrorist he potentially now faces the death penalty in Belarus.

World reaction has been hostile, with Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, declaring that “hijacking a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism that cannot go unpunished.” Latvia’s foreign minister has demanded strong and effective action, but it is unclear what form this might take. NATO branded the incident “serious and dangerous.”

Belarus is already subject to EU sanctions for the brutality with which it has treated protesters; these take the form of asset freezes and travel bans on a list of 88 named people, including Mr Lukashenko himself, and a number of state-owned entities. America has a similar, but shorter list. It is possible that airlines may seek to avoid Belarusian airspace, but this will increase journey times and cost. The difficulty in doing much more is that Russia, where Vladimir Putin continues to support his fellow autocrat, can easily render Western economic sanctions ineffective, supplying Belarus with cash and commodities, and handling its meagre exports. Belarus is already a pariah, without much to lose.

Despite the Polish leader’s remark, there are some precedents for forcing down a plane in order to arrest a wanted person. In 1956 France forced down a plane in order to seize Algerian nationalist leaders, and Libya also once forced down a British plane in order to arrest and hand over some Sudanese coup leaders. But such actions are extremely rare and serious. The Ryanair plane had almost reached the Lithuanian border when it was turned around, and then had a much longer journey to Minsk than it would have had to Vilnius—making a mockery of the claim that the action was intended to deal with a bomb threat.