Hijacked Belarusian's girlfriend 'may be tortured to pressure him'May 28, 2021
Abducted Belarus journalist’s girlfriend ‘may be tortured to put pressure on him’ it’s feared after he appeared ‘with broken nose and missing teeth’ as transcript of fake bomb alert to Ryanair pilot is revealed
- Roman Protasevich, 26, and girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, arrested in Minsk Sunday and being held in Belarus
- Sofia’s parents have spoken of their fears that she will be tortured in order to put pressure on her boyfriend
- Both say they warned her of the dangers of dating a wanted activist, but Sofia insisted that she was ‘in love’
- Nothing has been heard from Sofia since the flight she was on with Roman was diverted to Minsk using a fake bomb scare, where the pair were bundled into an SUV and driven away
- Roman has appeared in state media to ‘confess’ to his crimes, but father says his son’s nose seems broken
Abducted journalist Roman Protesevich’s girlfriend could be tortured as a way to get to him, her parents fear, after she was arrested in Belarus and sent to a notorious jail for political prisoners.
Andrey Sapega and his ex-wife Anna Dudich spoke out today, 72 hours after 23-year-old daughter Sofia Sapega was bundled off a Ryanair plane in Minsk when Belarusian authorities diverted it there using a fake bomb threat.
Mr Sapega, 53, said he is ‘very, very concerned for Sofia’ after learning that she had been sent to the notorious Okrestina Street detention centre, where prisoners have reported being electrocuted, viciously beaten, and made to adopt stress positions for hours at a time.
‘However strong she is, the guys now dealing with the destiny of my daughter, they can break anyone,’ Mr Sapega said from his home in Russia’s Vladivostok. ‘Why do the Belorussian authorities need her now?
‘As a way of putting pressure on Roman? I don’t know, but it’s quite likely.’
Anna added: ‘I fear for Sofia, what will happen to her. My main fear [is] of false accusations and my child being jailed.’ Asked whether she thought Sofia is being held to pressure Roman, she said: ‘I share this idea but she is an ordinary fifth year student. She is not into any political activity.
‘I know everything about her life. She is not into any political activities and she dreams to carry on her diploma.’
The pair spoke out as Belarus published what it claimed was a transcript of its air traffic controller warning a confused Ryanair pilot of a bomb on board, before he makes the call to divert the plane to Minsk.
In the script, which has not been independently verified, appears to confirm that Belarus had issued the bomb threat directly, but makes no mention of a fighter plane sent to escort the passenger jet.
On arrival in Minsk, Roman and Sofia were separated from the other passengers before being put into an SUV by government officials and driven away. Nothing has been heard from Sofia since.
Roman has appeared on camera in which he claims he is being treated well and is confessing to his crimes. Father Dzmitry said his son appears to have a broken nose, missing teeth, and is speaking under duress.
- Joe Biden condemned the hijack as ‘a direct affront to international norms’, adding that ‘this outrageous incident the video Mr Protasevich appears to have made under duress are shameful’
- Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas said Lukashenko will ‘pay bitter price’ for ‘heinous’ plane diversion
- French President Emmanuel Macron suggested inviting Belarusian opposition leaders to next month’s G7 summit, which is due to be held in the UK
- British Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the video of Protasevich as ‘deeply disturbing’ and warned that Belarus’s actions ‘will have consequences’
- The UN and NATO condemned the ‘state hijacking’ of an aircraft and called for the immediate release of Protasevich and Sapega, saying they are victims of ‘unlawful arrest and arbitrary detention’
- Flight tracking data showed flights from European countries skirting Belarus airspace after EU leaders called for the country to be blacklisted, saying more ‘targeted’ sanctions against officials are being prepared
- Alexander Lukashenko defied all of them by signing off tough new laws cracking down on the media, banning live reports on demonstrations and allowing the government to close outlets down
- Belarus jailed seven political activists, including Young Front leader Pavel Severinets, for between four and seven years for taking part in ‘mass unrest’ following the 2020 election
- Moscow denied any involvement in Protasevich’s arrest, saying claims are driven by ‘anti-Russian’ sentiment
Anna Dudich (left) and Andrey Sapega (right), the parents of law student Sofia Sapega who was arrested alongside her Belarusian boyfriend Roman Protasevich at the weekend, have spoken of their fears for their daughter
Both Andrey and Anna, who are now separated, say they worry that Sofia (pictured) will be tortured in order to put pressure on her boyfriend and worry that she might be jailed on false charges
Sofia (left and right) is currently being held at a notorious jail in Minsk that is typically reserved for political prisoners, and where inmates have reported being electrocuted, beaten and forced to hold stress positions for hours at a time
Sofia’s parents spoke out after boyfriend Roman was seen on camera for the first time since his arrest (left), with father Dzmitry saying it appears his son’s nose is broken and some teeth are missing (Roman pictured in 2017, right, for comparison)
The couple (pictured together left) were returning to Lithuania from a holiday in Greece on Sunday when the plane they were on was diverted by authorities in Belarus because of a fake bomb threat, before the couple were separated from the other passengers (right) and bundled into a waiting car
Confusion over bomb threat but NO mention of a fighter jet: Belarus releases ‘air traffic control transcript’
Belarus has released what it claims is a transcript of conversations that one of its air traffic controllers had with the pilot of a Ryanair plane diverted to Minsk on Sunday.
The script, which has not been independently verified, appears to show air traffic control warning the pilot of a bomb on the plane which is primed to detonate over Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania where the jet was headed.
The following conversation takes place over the course of a little over 15 minutes:
– Air traffic control: For your information, we have information from special services that you have bomb on board and it can be activated over Vilnius.
– Pilot: Standby.
– Pilot: Ok, could you repeat the message?
– ATC: I say again we have information from special services that you have bomb on board. That bomb can be activated over Vilnius.
A clearly confused pilot then asks for more information about where the bomb threat is coming from, and which airport he is being diverted to
After several back-and-forth messages, he is told the threat was received ‘via an email’ that was sent to ‘several airports’ and that he should divert to Minsk, followed by this:
– Pilot: Again, this recommendation to divert to Minsk where did it come from? Where did it come from? Company? Did it come from departure airport authorities or arrival airport authorities?
– ATC: This is our recommendations.
– Pilot: Can you say again?
– ATC: This is our recommendations.
– Pilot: Did you say that your recommendation?
– ATC: Charlie-Charlie (an aviation term meaning ‘confirmed’)
Air traffic control then begin asking the pilot for his decision, and he responds asking for a ‘alert code’. After being told it is ‘code red’, the pilot says he will maintain his current position. Two minutes later, he comes back on the radio:
– Pilot: We are declaring an emergency MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY. Our intentions would be to divert to Minsk airport
– ATC: Roger. Standby for vectors.
– Pilot: Standby.
What follows is a series of directions into Minsk airport, mixed in with local weather reports and the pilot giving information such as how many people he has on board. The transcript then ends.
If the script is accurate, then it confirms that the pilot was told about a bomb threat and that it came directly from authorities in Belarus – however, the script is more notable for what it does not say, than what it does say.
For example, there is no mention of Hamas – the group Belarus would later blame for the bomb, which the group has denied. There is also no mention of a fighter jet scrambled to escort the plane, much less a threat to shoot.
However, it is possible that the fighter pilot was able to communicate with the pilot directly – in which case their conversation would not be captured on this transcript. The transcript also does not capture what, if any, conversations the pilot had with other parties – such as Ryanair officials.
Roman and Sofia had been dating for around six months after meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania, where he is working as a journalist in exile and she is studying international law.
They were returning from Greece – where they accompanied opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to a conference before staying for a holiday – to Lithuania when their plane was hijacked.
Both Andrey and Anna say they were aware that their daughter was dating Roman after she revealed his identity to them, saying that she had not told many of her friends.
They say the relationship was tempestuous, and the couple had broken up once around New Year before getting back together. Both say they warned her about the dangers of dating a wanted political activist, but she insisted that she was ‘in love’.
‘She often told me – ‘Mum, I’m always attracted to smart men.’ Roman is a wise guy. Sofia likes his brain, she told me: ‘Mum he is super smart.’ She is in love with him.’
Andrey added: ‘She spoke about Roman as about a very smart, intelligent, thoughtful young man, with a modern outlook and an active position in life.
‘He was looking after her, she said, but I guess these were the two strong characters who were clashing from time to time. So for me it was worrying to watch this…
‘Her mother also said that choosing Roman meant that Sofia would not have a quiet life. It would always be like on top of a volcano.
‘We were saying it as parents who are concerned for their children. Sadly our worries turned out to be true.’
Anna also revealed that she has written to President Putin asking him to secure her daughter’s release, and today Russia’s foreign ministry confirmed diplomats have been in touch with her parents.
Sofia is currently in jail in Minsk, the government confirmed, adding that they have not yet been able to speak with her but hope to be given access ‘very shortly’.
While the exact charges against her are not clear, she is being held on suspicion of being involved in mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko in August last year. Belarus views the protests as riots.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the EU had also frozen £2.6billion in investment destined for Belarus ‘until it becomes democratic.’
She added: ‘This is an attack on democracy. This is an attack on freedom of expression. And this is an attack on European sovereignty. And this outrageous behaviour needs a strong answer.’
Airlines including Air France, Finnair, the Netherlands’ KLM, Germany’s Lufthansa, Scandinavian carrier SAS, Poland’s Lot, and Singapore Airlines all appeared to be complying with the new rules on Tuesday – moves that could cost Belarus millions of pound in air traffic control fees, according to Russian broadcaster RBC.
Belarusian dog handler checks luggage from the Ryanair flight in Minsk International Airport on May 23
Ryanair flight FR4978 had been flying from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania when it was escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet to Belarus amid fake reports of an IED on board. It was forced to make an emergency landing at Minsk Airport, where authorities arrested dissident journalist Roman Protasevich
Roman Protasevich appears meek and ‘self-contained’ in the video released of his confession last night, a body language expert has revealed.
The 26-year-old appears exhausted with ‘puffy or tired looking inexpressive eyes’ – a far cry from his news broadcasts as a journalist which were filled with gesticulation and facial expression.
In the video he sits with his hands ‘meshed in a self-contained-looking closed clasp’ body language expert Judi James told MailOnline.
And the movement of his eyes ‘hints that he could be reading from a statement but this is hard to clarify.’
‘Like many radio speakers or bloggers, Protasevich seems to have previously used hand gesticulation and eye expressions to add impact to his messages and power to his vocal tone,’ she said.
‘Here though he sits static with his hands clasped on the table in front of his torso and something that looks like a poker face with rather puffy or tired-looking unexpressive eyes and no brow movement.’
Ms James added: ‘There are no ‘Hi, I’m fine!’ relaxed-looking persuasive gestures here that a young man might use to reassure his family that he is OK, like a throwing out of open palms and maybe even a reassuring smile.
‘Instead his fingers are meshed in a self-contained-looking closed clasp with the upper thumb performing a clamp gesture that includes the sleeve of his sweatshirt.
‘He uses both his head and his clasped hands to perform small metronomic gestures as he speaks as though it is important to get the words across.
‘As he speaks about being detained there is a micro-gesture as the left side of his mouth slews out in what looks like a subtle display of emotion.
‘As he speaks his hand clasp changes slightly, becoming a steepled, forward-pointing ‘praying’ shape before meshing up again, which again hints at a need to get the messages across.’
Ukraine’s government also said all of its airlines would be avoiding the country’s airspace, while multiple European countries said they were working to ban the country’s state carrier Belavia from using their airports.
Meanwhile Latvia and Belarus expelled all diplomats and ambassadors from each other’s countries in tit-for-tat moves sparked when Latvian officials replaced the Belarusian flag at an ice hockey world championship in Riga with a flag used by the opposition, causing outrage.
Meanwhile US President Joe Biden on Monday called the forced diversion of the commercial passenger jet ‘a direct affront to international norms’ and condemned the action as an ‘outrageous incident.’ In his statement, he also expressed outrage over Protasevich’s video statement that aired on Belarusian state TV.
‘This outrageous incident and the video Mr Protasevich appears to have made under duress are shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press,’ Biden said in a statement.
‘The United States joins countries around the world in calling for his release, as well as for the release of the hundreds of political prisoners who are being unjustly detained by the Lukashenko regime.’
Ms Tikhanovskaya on Tuesday welcomed the sanctions and called on world leader to go further – targeting members of the government and their business associates, in the hopes of toppling the regime so that free elections can be held.
I think many have already watched the video with imprisoned Roman,’ she told reporters in Lithuania. ‘He says that he is being treated lawfully, but he is clearly beaten and under pressure. There is no doubt that he may be tortured.
‘He was taken hostage – like 406 political prisoners and hundreds of people who have not yet been recognized as political prisoners but are behind bars. He was taken hostage, like 9 million Belarusians.
‘The whole world has understood that not only Belarusians are in danger. Many countries have given definitions to the actions of the regime – this is state-backed terrorism.
‘The suspension of flights over Belarus doesn’t solve the real problem. The problem is the terrorist regime that rigged elections last year, regularly violates the constitution, and breaks international law.
‘Lukashenko’s regime is a threat to regional and European security. The only solution to this crisis is to conduct free and fair elections and democratic reforms.’
The hijacking unfolded around 9.45am GMT on Sunday as Ryanair flight FR4978 was flying through Belarus airspace on its way from Athens to Vilnius, when a Belarus MiG-29 fighter jet intercepted it.
Belarus authorities claimed they had received a bomb threat from Hamas – the group which operates in Gaza – threatening to blow up the plane in the skies above Vilnius, and informed the pilot of the threat.
According to officials in Belarus, the pilot then made the decision to divert to Minsk rather than continue to Vilnius or divert to another airport.
But observers say this makes no sense, as Vilnius was by far the closest airport – theorising that the fighter jet may have threatened to shoot down the passenger plane. Belarus denies this.
Hamas has denied there was any bomb threat, and has no known ability to operate outside of Gaza and Israel. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also poured scorn on the idea, calling it ‘completely implausible’.
Around half an hour later, the flight landed in Minsk where the passengers were taken off and had their baggage searched.
Witnesses say Mr Protasevich told them he was going to be arrested and faced ‘the death penalty’ before he was taken to a waiting SUV and sped away. Miss Sapega was also arrested.
Who is Sofia Sapega, Roman’s girlfriend?
Belarus arrested journalist Roman Protasevich in Minsk on Sunday, alongside girlfriend Sofia Sapega.
While Roman is a well-known dissident and prominent reporter, far less is known about Miss Sapega.
Russia has confirmed that she is one of its citizens, and social media suggests she is originally from Vladivostok and has a father who lives in Thailand.
Miss Sapega also appears to have family in Belarus, but for the past several years has been living in Lithuania while studying at the European Humanities University.
The university confirmed she is studying international and European Union law, and had been due to defend her Master’s thesis before being arrested.
It is thought that she and Roman had been dating for around six months before Sunday’s hijacking, having met in a bar in Vilnius.
Miss Sapega’s mother revealed to the BBC that she had managed to send a message reading ‘mummy’ to her on WhatsApp before being arrested.
Her mother added that she is now being held in jail in Minsk, and Russia’s foreign ministry says it has asked for consular access. The charges against her are unclear.
He is now being held on extremism charges relating to mass protests following last year’s election – which is widely viewed as rigged – while she is being held on unknown charges, also relating to the protests.
Flight logs show three other passengers also disembarked in Minsk, amid claims these were Belarusian KGB agents sent to oversee the operation.
Initially it was thought that the agents could have been from the namesake Russian KGB, but Moscow has denied any involvement. The Kremlin says it is seeking consular access to Miss Sapega, who is a Russian citizen.
The trio who departed in Minsk have since appeared on Belarus state TV where they were presented as two Belarus nationals – Sergey Kulakov and Alexandra Stabredova – and a Greek man, Zisis Yason.
The group claimed they had been due to fly to Minsk anyway and had begged to be kept off the flight when it returned to the skies, around seven hours after it first touched down. They did not directly address claims about being undercover agents.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4 this morning, journalist and historian Anne Applebaum said that Lukashenko appeared to have ‘made a decision’ in advance of hijacking the flight that sanctions against his regime were worth it in order to arrest Protasevich.
‘He doesn’t mind being cut off from the rest of the world and he doesn’t mind being totally reliant on Russia,’ she said, adding that ‘[Russia] will now be his only ally, the only country that will buy goods from Belarus, the only country that will trade with him.
‘He has decided that remaining in power, the fate of his regime and probably his personal safety matters to him more than the rest of the country.’
But she added that sanctions are still an important tool that could pressure elites within Belarus to rebel and oust Lukashenko. ‘I think that’s what the Belarus opposition wants to have happen,’ she said.
That pressure did not appear to be evident on Tuesday, as Belarus media reported that seven activists had been sentenced to jail time for their political activities.
Separately, the White House said that national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Monday spoke Ms Tsikhanouskaya.
Sullivan told the opposition leader that the US ‘in coordination with the EU and other allies and partners, will hold the Lukashenka regime to account.’
Two US senators urged the Biden administration to prohibit U.S. airlines from entering Belarus airspace because of the incident. ‘We must protect innocent passengers from despotic regimes and stand in solidarity with dissidents who are being targeted,’ Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a joint statement.
Protasevich, an outspoken critic of Belarusian Lukashenko – dubbed ‘Europe’s last dictator’ – was wanted for his role in organising massive protests against him after rigged elections last year.
The Belarus Interior Ministry said Protasevich is being held in the capital Minsk and dismissed unconfirmed reports that he was hospitalised.
Earlier, Belarusian media reported that Protasevich’s mother received unconfirmed reports that her son was in hospital and in critical condition because of heart problems.
‘This information does not correspond with reality,’ the ministry said on its Telegram channel.
It added that ‘the arrested person is in custody’ and is being held in Detention Centre No1 in central Minsk.
‘The administration of the institution has not received any complaints about his health,’ the ministry said.
ROMAN PROTASEVICH: OPPOSITION BLOGGER FORCED INTO EXILE
NEXTA, Protasevich’s outlet, was closely involved in reporting a wave of opposition protests that last year threatened to topple Lukashenko, before he was given backing by Vladimir Putin
Protasevich, 26, has long been a thorn in the side of Belarus’s hardline dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
He worked as an editor at the Poland-based Nexta Live channel, which is based on the Telegram messenger app and has over 1 million subscribers.
The channel, which is openly hostile to Lukashenko, played an important role in broadcasting huge opposition protests against the President last year.
Nexta also helped coordinate those same protests, which were sparked by anger over what the opposition said was a rigged presidential election.
The channel’s footage, which showed how harshly police cracked down on demonstrators, was used widely by international media at a time when the Belarusian authorities were reluctant to allow foreign media in.
In November Protasevich published a copy of an official Belarusian list of terrorists on which his name figured.
The listing said he was accused of organising mass riots while working at Nexta. He also stands accused of disrupting social order and of inciting social hatred. He regards the allegations, which could see him jailed for years, as unjustified political repression.
Protasevich fled Belarus for Poland in 2019 due to pressure from the authorities, according to Media Solidarity, a group that supports Belarusian journalists.
He moved his parents to Poland too after they were put under surveillance. He later relocated to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is also based.
Protasevich is currently editor-in-chief of a Belarusian political outlet hosted on the Telegram messaging app called ‘Belarus of the Brain’ which has around a quarter of a million subscribers.
He was flying back to Vilnius from Greece where he had spent time taking photographs of a visit there by Tsikhanouskaya. He had posted the pictures to social media before flying back.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab raised the possibility of direct Russian involvement in the diversion of the civilian airliner, telling MPs: ‘It’s very difficult to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow.’
Yale University History Professor Timothy Snyder also added fuel to rumours of Russian participation in the plot, claiming in a tweet: ‘Belarus would not have hijacked an EU plane without Russian approval’.
But Russia threw its weight behind Belarus, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying that Lukashenko was taking an ‘absolutely reasonable approach’ to the detention of Protasevich.
Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova also mocked the Western indignation at the alleged hijacking, writing on Facebook she was ‘shocked that the West calls the incident in Belarusian air space ‘shocking” and accusing Western nations of ‘kidnappings, forced landings, and illegal arrests’.
Lukashenko, an ally of Vladimir Putin, personally gave the ‘unequivocal order’ to ‘make the plane do a U-turn and land,’ according to a statement by Belarus’s presidential news service.
Tsikhanouskaya called for wider sanctions on the Lukashenko’s regime after Protasevich’s arrest, which she said was ‘the result of impunity’.
‘For nine months already we have been fighting against the regime after fraudulent elections, but the regime still feels impunity and you see they use such awful methods of kidnapping people,’ she said.
‘We have to put much more pressure on this regime for them to stop violence and to release political prisoners.’
She said she though it ‘unbelievable’ the regime had lasted long under these circumstances, especially because ‘the whole county is against the regime’.
‘The only question is, how many victims will there be during this fight for freedom and for democracy? I’m sure that these changes will come soon’, she added.
A fierce opponent of the Lukashenko regime, Protasevich had fled his home country in 2019 fearing he would be arrested by the strongman leader.
Working out of Warsaw, the young journalist worked for the Nexta Telegram channel which made its name publishing videos of mass demonstrations against Lukashenko’s regime surrounding the 2020 election which the president claimed to have won – though observers strongly believe was rigged.
Nexta played a key role in helping demonstrators organise and was subsequently deemed an ‘extremist’ organisation by the Belarus government. In November last year, Protasevich was added to a state list of ‘terrorists’ – a list he obtained and published.
Mr Protasevich subsequently left Nexta and founded his own Telegram channel – Belarus of the Brain – and moved to Lithuania, where Ms Tikhanovskaya is living in exile following last year’s vote.
Before his arrest on Sunday, he had flown to Greece to accompany the opposition politician to the Delphi Economic Forum and had stayed on for a few days afterwards with his girlfriend as a holiday.
Mr Protasevich had previously talked to friends about the risk of flying through Belarus airspace, but was apparently lulled into a false sense of security when Ms Tikhanovskaya flew from Athens to Lithuania several days before him without incident.
But on the day of his own flight, suspicions that things weren’t quite right began to appear at the check-in desk – as Mr Protasevich messaged friends to say that a man ‘speaking Russian’ had tried to photograph his travel documents.
Belarus state TV claims that these are the three people who departed the Ryanair jet in Minsk yesterday alongside Protasevich and his girlfriend, denying they are KGB agents. The trio gave their names as Alexandra Stabredova (left) and Sergey Kulakov (centre), both Belarusian nationals, and Zisis Yason (right), who said he is Greek
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a press conference at the EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that Protasevich’s video ‘confession’ is ‘deeply disturbing’ while warning that ‘actions will have consequences’
Aviation experts have claimed that Belarus threatened to shoot down the Athens to Vilnius Ryanair flight unless it did not land immediately (pictured: a MiG-29 fighter jet involved in the incident arriving back at base in Belarus). Their presence has stoked fears of Russian secret services involvement in a murky operation to arrest opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, a passenger on the plane who was detained with his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, in Minsk
Europe’s last dictator: Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994
Born in 1954 in the village of Kopys, in what was then the USSR, Alexander Lukashenko was the son of an unknown father – thought by some to by a Roma gypsy – and a labourer mother, Ekaterina Lukashenko.
He studied in Belarus and graduated from the Mogilyov Teaching Institute in 1975, then went on to study at the Belarusian Agricultural Academy in the 1980s.
He did a brief stint in the Belarusian border guards and also served in the Soviet Army, becoming involved in politics as a teacher within the military, and as the leader of a Leninist organisation in the city of Mogilev.
After leaving the military he joined the ranks of the Communist Party and was appointed leader of a state farm, before being elected to the Supreme Council of Belarus in 1990.
Lukashenko made his name as an anti-corruption campaigner and emerged as a strong political ally of Moscow, and was the only deputy to oppose the December 1991 agreement that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
In 1994 he appealed to Russia to form a new union of Slavic states, shortly before his election as President of Belarus – promising stronger ties between the two nations.
Two years later, he persuaded voters to approve a new constitution allowing him to extend his term in office, rule by degree, and to appoint a majority of parliament.
Lukashenko used those powers to extend his term in 1999, and won an election in 2001 and another in 2006 – amid allegations of vote-rigging that resulted EU leaders banning him from their countries.
Election victories – accompanied by more allegations of fixing – followed again in 2010 and 2015.
Lukashenko’s popularity declined rapidly between 2015 and 2020, spurred on by his increasingly erratic behaviour coupled with mismanagement of the Covid crisis – during which he claimed vodka and saunas could prevent the disease.
Amid a wave of dissent, another election was held in 2020 which returned an official victory for Lukashenko with 80 per cent of the vote – though few believe this to be accurate.
His main opponent – Sergei Tikhanovsky – was arrested in the run-up to the ballot, leaving wife Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to run in his stead. She subsequently fled the country to Lithuania after being targeted by police.
Anger at the result sparked the largest wave of protests in Belarus since its Soviet days, with mass demonstrations, strikes and calls for a change of leadership.
Lukashenko responded by sending riot police on to the streets to round up dissenters, with an estimated 25,000 arrested by November. Eight have so-far died amid the crackdown – the most-recent of whom was political prisoner Vitold Ashurok.
Lukashenko has also cracked down on journalists, raiding the offices of the country’s largest newspaper Tut.by last week along with the home of its editor on charges of ‘tax evasion’.
On Sunday he staged his most-daring move yet, by diverting a Ryanair jet carrying dissident reporter Roman Protasevich to Lithuania before arresting him.
Mr Protasevich’s allies, including Ms Tsikhanouskaya, say they now fear for his life.
‘It’s not certain,’ he texted a friend afterwards. ‘But in any case that’s some suspicious sh**.’
Nevertheless, he boarded the flight which took off at 9.29 local time, and flew most of its route as scheduled – including more than 100 miles through Belarus airspace.
But at 12.46 Belarus time, things suddenly changed. The plane made a sudden and sharp turn and began heading towards Minsk.
The captain announced to passengers shortly afterwards that the flight would be landing in the Belarus capital, without explaining why.
But witnesses say Protasevich was in no doubt. ‘They will arrest me,’ he is said to have told cabin crew, urging them to continue to Vilnius as scheduled – a request they reportedly refused.
The plane landed at Minsk around half an hour later, where Protasevich was separated from the other passengers and whisked away – telling them ‘a death sentence awaits me here’.
Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary was among voices condemning what he called ‘state-sponsored piracy’ by Belarus, tying Russian into the operation.
‘I think it’s very frightening for the crew, for the passengers who were held under armed guard, had their bags searched,’ he told Newstalk.
‘It was clear it appears that the intent of the Russian authorities was to remove a journalist and his traveling companion. We believe there was also some KGB agents offloaded from the aircraft as well.’
Tory MP Tom Tugendhat this morning called it ‘a warlike act,’ joining the British, Irish and American governments in their condemnation. ‘This was a flight between two NATO members and between two EU members,’ the Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman told Radio 4. ‘If it’s not an act of war, it’s certainly a warlike act.’
Mr Raab, the British foreign secretary, vowed to hold Lukashenko accountable ‘for his outlandish actions’ with further sanctions and demanded the ‘immediate release of Protasevich.’
His Irish counterpart Simon Coveney was also withering, saying that Dublin – where Ryanair is headquartered – would not allow the ‘state-sponsored piracy’ to go unpunished.
‘We cannot allow this incident to pass on the basis of warnings or strong press releases,’ Coveney told RTE. ‘I think there has to be real edge to the sanctions that are applied on the back of this. This was effectively aviation piracy, state-sponsored.’
Moscow defended its ally, with foreign minister Sergei Lavrov calling Lukashenko’s action an ‘absolutely reasonable approach.’
‘A representative of the Belarusian foreign ministry… stressed the readiness of the Belarusian authorities to act on the issue in a transparent manner and to follow all international rules,’ Lavrov said during a press conference following a meeting with his Greek counterpart.
‘I think this is an absolutely reasonable approach.’
He called on the global community to ‘soberly assess the situation’.
Earlier Monday, authorities in Belarus insisted they had acted legally when they diverted the flight. They instead accused the West of making unfounded claims for political reasons.
Several European airlines including AirBaltic, Air Austria and Wizz Air were avoiding Belarusian air space as EU leaders met in Brussels ton discuss furthers sanctions against Lukashenko.
AirBaltic said it was monitoring the situation and would avoid Belarus airspace until it ‘becomes clearer’. It added: ‘the safety and health of our passengers and employees in the main priority’.
The Foreign Affairs Committee has called for a complete flight ban on Belarusian airspace. MP Tugendhat said he wanted to see a flight ban ‘to protect our citizens from any potential repeat of this event’.
Tugendhat explained he was calling for a ban on all flights going into, or out of, Belarus, until Sunday’s hijacking was resolved.
He added a call for ‘immediate sanctions on the Lukashenko regime’, including on the Yamal-Europe oil pipeline.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said further sanctions were being considered against the Lukashenko administration and Belarus’ ambassador in London had been summoned for a dressing down.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he had instructed the Civil Aviation Authority to request airlines avoid Belarusian airspace ‘in order to keep passengers safe’.
He also suspended the operating permit for Belavia, the country’s state-owned airline.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, leader of the Belarusian opposition who was with Mr Protasevich just days before his arrest, spoke to journalists in Lithuania today – where she lives in exile – and called for his immediate release
WHY HAVE THERE BEEN PROTESTS IN BELARUS?
Belarus, a former Soviet republic closely allied with Russia, was rocked by strikes and weeks of protests last summer after President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994, was re-elected.
The demonstrations started in the run-up to the August election day and became widespread after he claimed victory.
The results was rejected by opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was soon forced into exile.
The massive demonstrations sparked by the vote were the largest and most persistent show of opposition the former Soviet republic has ever seen, with some of them attracting as many as 200,000 people.
More than 33,000 people were arrested during the protests and the police crackdown was brutal, with tear gas and rubber bullets used to disperse the masses, while others were beaten in the streets.
Thousands were detained as the protests rumbled on through the autumn, with political activists and journalists jailed or forced into exile in neighbouring former Soviet states.
At least four people were killed in the repression, with harrowing accounts emerging of abuse and torture in prisons.
Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, has refused to step down and has secured backing from Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
The European Union has refused to recognise the results of the election and imposed sanctions on Belarus.
There have been sporadic demonstrations against Lukashenko this year, including on Freedom Day, March 25, when dozens of protesters were arrested in Minsk.
Belarus was disqualified from the weekend’s Eurovision Song Contest after lyrics of submitted songs were deemed to be mocking of anti-government protests.
A Lithuanian passenger on board the plane, who gave his name as Mantas, told how Protasevich jumped from his seat as the captain announced the plane was being diverted.
‘Roman stood up, opened the luggage compartment, took luggage and was trying to split things,’ he said.
‘I think he made a mistake. There were plenty of people so he could give the things to me or other passengers and not the girlfriend, who was also I think arrested.’
Mantas was speaking to Reuters after a day-long ordeal that began in Athens and finally ended late in the evening in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, after a stopover of more than seven hours in Minsk.
Another exhausted passenger, speaking to reporters without giving her name, said Protasevich looked ‘super scared’.
‘I looked directly into his eyes and he was very sad,’ she said. Protasevich was immediately separated on arrival in Minsk and checks of luggage using sniffer dogs turned up nothing.
‘We saw that Roman was stopped due to some things in the luggage,’ Mantas said, adding that the other passengers also had their luggage checked and were taken by bus to the terminal where they spent several hours waiting to reboard the plane.
‘We saw from the window that Roman is standing alone, and one policeman with dog was trying to find something (in his luggage).’
Another passenger, who also did not give his name, told Lithuanian media that Protasevich had identified himself to Belarusian security officials on arrival. ‘I saw how his passport was taken away. He took off his mask and said: ‘I’m so-and-so and I’m the reason why all this is going on.”
Aviation experts revealed that the passenger plane had been significantly closer to Vilnius than it was to Minsk when it was forced to turn around, making a mockery of the Belarusian claims that it needed to make an emergency landing for a bomb threat.
Leading opposition figure Pavel Latushko said: ‘The air traffic controllers of Minsk-2 airport threatened to shoot at the Ryanair civilian plane with passengers on board. For this reason, a military fighter MiG-29 of Belarus Air Force was sent.
‘This proves again that this incident was an act of state terrorism… It demands an immediate reaction of European authorities and the entire world community.’
Ryanair did not deny the claims this morning, telling MailOnline: ‘Ryanair condemns the unlawful actions of Belarusian authorities who diverted Ryanair’s flight FR4978 to Minsk yesterday (23 May), which was an act of aviation piracy.
‘This is now being dealt with by EU safety and security agencies & NATO. Ryanair is fully cooperating with them and we cannot comment further for security reasons.’
Latushko heads the National Anti-Crisis Management, a shadow government set up last year by the Belarusian Coordination Council for the peaceful transfer of power following the ‘rigged’ 2020 election, widely seen as stolen by President Alexander Lukashenko.
He is a former culture minister of Belarus and was the country’s ambassador to France, Spain and Portugal before joining the opposition.
The claim about the shooting had come via the Belarus civil aviation authority, he said.
Moscow-based aviation expert Vadim Lukashevich said he too believed that a threat to shoot down the Ryanair flight had been made.
He said: ‘To make it crystal clear – the pilots of the Ryanair plane that was forced to land in Belarus were pulling towards the destination Vilnius until the last possible moment.
‘They had to turn back under the threat of a fighter jet when the distance to Vilnius airport was only 45 miles away and only 19 miles to the Lithuanian border.’
He claimed the Ryanair pilots were ‘heading towards Lithuania without slowing down… they were escaping from the fighter jet, and they turned back just two minutes before crossing the Lithuanian border. ‘
Flightradar data showed the plane had not slowed to descend at the usual height on this route but appeared to be flying as fast as possible to the border – before abruptly turning back, seemingly on the orders of the MiG-29.
He is convinced that ‘the fighter had permission to shoot’, he said.
‘And I am absolutely sure that the crew of the passenger aircraft turned around only after receiving a notification from the Belarusian fighter that, in case of disobedience, it would open fire before the passenger plane left the airspace of Belarus.’
Meanwhile, a leading Russian investigative journalist Roman Dobrokhotov revealed that as well as Protasevich’s girlfriend Sapega, four Russian passengers who had been on the flight to Lithuania left it in Minsk.
He claimed: ‘Four citizens of Russia did not continue the flight to Vilnius.
‘This operation was escorted by Russian special services.’
One of Russia’s most respected independent journalists Alexey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Echo Moscow radio, said: ‘Four more Russians didn’t follow on to Vilnius, but left the plane in Minsk, and dissolved into the nature.’
Another source suggests there were three not four Russians who left the plane, but in any event their identities are not known.
Sapega is a student of the European Humanities University, now based in Vilnius, after its forced closure by Lukashenko’s authorities in Minsk.
She is a Russian citizen, and the university where she studies international law has expressed deep concern for her fate.
Political detainees in Belarus are frequently tortured by the KGB secret service and police.
A passenger named Raselle, a beautician, was videoed on the plane when it landed in Minsk posted a message to say that Protasevich had said to the flight attendant: ‘Don’t do this, they will kill me. I am refugee.
‘He answered: We must, we have no choice, it’s in Ryanair legal agreements.’
Lithuania – a former Soviet state now in the EU and NATO – has led Western calls for action against its neighbour, Belarus.
‘It is an unprecedented attack against the international community: a civilian plane and its passengers have been hijacked by military force, and a Belarusian citizen has been abducted, whose life and health are in danger,’ said a government statement.
‘It is unjustifiable that ordinary international travellers have been held hostage to the regime’s aggression.
‘This is the act of state terrorism directed against the security of citizens of the European Union and other countries, civil society of Belarus seeking asylum from the regime’s persecution, as well as international civil aviation.
‘Lithuania will demand a clear and uncompromising response from the international community.’
Mr Raab said in a statement on Monday: ‘The UK condemns yesterday’s actions by the Belarusian authorities, who arrested journalist Roman Protasevich on the basis of a ruse, having forced his flight to land in Minsk. Mr Lukashenko must be held to account for his outlandish actions.
Police officers detained Roman Protasevich after he was attempting to cover a rally in Minsk, Belarus on 26 March 2017
‘The UK calls for the immediate release of Mr Protasevich and other political prisoners held in Belarus. The UK is working with our allies on a coordinated response, including further sanctions. The UK also calls for the ICAO Council to meet urgently to consider the regime’s flouting of the international rules safeguarding civil aviation.’
The 27 EU leaders open a two-day summit later Monday and the issue immediately shot to the top the agenda amid united condemnation of Lukashenko.
‘The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences,’ EU chief Ursula von der Leyen tweeted. ‘Those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned.’
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called it ‘yet another blatant attempt by the Belarusian authorities to silence all opposition voices.’ He called the diversion of the plane an ‘inadmissible step’ highlighting a further worsening in relations between both sides.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry on Monday bristled at what it described as ‘belligerent’ EU statements, insisting that the country’s authorities acted ‘in full conformity with international rules.’
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the incident ‘shocking’ and accused the Belarusian government of endangering the lives of those aboard the aircraft, including some Americans. He called for the release of Protasevich and for the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization to review the incident.
‘I saw this Belarusian guy with girlfriend sitting right behind us. He freaked out when the pilot said the plane is diverted to Minsk. He said there’s death penalty awaiting him there,’ passenger Marius Rutkauskas said after the plane finally arrived in Vilnius.
‘We sat for an hour after the landing. Then they started releasing passengers and took those two. We did not see them again.’
Protasevich was a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app’s Nexta channel, which played a prominent role in helping organise major protests against Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko.
The Belarusian authorities have designated it as extremist and levered charges of inciting riots against Protasevich, who could face 15 years in prison if convicted.
Months of protests in Belarus were fueled by Lukashenko’s election to a sixth presidential term in an August vote that the opposition denounced as rigged.
More than 34,000 people have been arrested in Belarus since August, and thousands were brutally beaten.
Countdown to hijack: Journalist feared he was being followed before plane was diverted
Roman Protasevich, a dissident political journalist, has been arrested in Belarus after his flight from Greece to Lithuania was dramatically diverted by a fighter jet and forced to land in Minsk.
The 26-year-old had long been aware of the danger that faced him in his home country at the hands of Alexander Lukashenko, had discussed his fears about flying through the country’s airspace before the audacious kidnap.
Here’s how Sunday’s events played out…
Week commencing May 10: Roman Protasevich travels with the delegation of ousted Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya from Lithuania – where both of them are based – to Greece,
May 14: Ms Tsikhanouskaya gives an address to the Delphi Economic Forum watched on by Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega, before flying back to Lithuania
May 14-23: Protasevich and Sapega stay on in Greece for a holiday, and plan to fly back to Lithuania on May 23 along the same route used by Ms Tsikhanouskaya just a few days earlier
Protasevich had previously discussed fears about flying through Belarusian airspace with his friends, but was apparently reassured after Ms Tsikhanouskaya completed the journey without incident
May 23, around 7.30am local time: Protasevich and Sapega arrive at Athens airport to check in for their flight, where a man ‘speaking Russian’ apparently tries to take photos of his boarding documents
Protasevich was spooked enough by the incident to text a friend about it, but seemed to view it as curious and a little amusing rather than anything to worry about
‘Lol, it seems that the [security services] were following me at the airport,’ he texted in Russian. ‘And even tried to photograph my documents. It’s not certain. But in any case that’s some suspicious sh**.’
May 23, 9.29am local: Ryanair Flight FR4978 departs Athens bound for Vilnius with 126 passengers on board. It passes over Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine before entering Belarus airspace
12.46pm, Belarus time: Around 50 miles from its destination, and having already started its descent, the plane makes an abrupt starboard turn. The captain announces, without explanation, that the flight is being diverted to Minsk
In the cabin, a panicked Protasevich pleads with cabin crew not to divert. ‘We have no choice,’ he is told
1.16pm, Belarus time: The plane lands at Minsk and passengers are taken off while their baggage is searched, ostensibly because of a Hamas bomb threat
Security agents separate Protasevich and Sapega from the crowd. He tells his fellow passengers that ‘a death sentence awaits me’ before he is bundled into an SUV and driven away
8.47pm, Belarus time: Ryanair Flight FR4978 departs Minsk carrying 121 passengers and flies half an hour to Vilnius, where it lands at 8.26pm local time
May 24: World leaders condemn what they describe as a ‘hijacking’ and level sanctions against Belarus, including cutting off all air travel to and from the country
Belarus officials issue denials, saying the Ryanair pilot ‘chose’ to divert to Minsk after being informed of the bomb threat. Airline boss Michael O’Leary insists it was a hijacking, and says KGB agents may have been on board
May 25: Belarus state TV releases footage of Protasevich – the first time he has been seen since his arrest – in which he says he is being treated well and is confessing to his crimes
Father Dzmitry says it appears his son’s nose is broken and he is wearing makeup to hide facial injuries. Ms Tsikhanouskaya says the statement was given under duress, and she fears for his life
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