By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
Roman Protasevich, 26, was on a flight from Greece to Lithuania, which was diverted over an alleged bomb threat by the Palestinian terror group Hamas.
The group denied that it made such a threat. Western countries accused Belarus of “hijacking” the Ryanair plane.
Belarus authorities on Monday released a video of Protasevich that family members and supporters said appeared to have been recorded under duress since his detention at Minsk airport.
In the clip, the journalist claimed he was in good health and seemingly confessed to crimes he had been charged with by the Belarusian state.
But activists, including the country’s prominent opposition leader, criticized the video and suggested Protasevich was under pressure to admit wrongdoing.
PASSENGERS RECALL HORROR
Separately passengers on board flight FR4978 later described the moment the “super scared” journalist tried to offload his mobile and laptop. He apparently realized the Belarusian authorities would detain him.
It happened after the pilot said the plane would be changing course for Minsk, the capital of Belarus after Belarusian air traffic controllers contacted the flight crew to reveal a “potential security threat onboard.”
Protasevich reacted immediately. He stood up from his seat, reached into the overhead locker, and pulled his laptop down, witnesses said. “[He] took the luggage, and was trying to split things, like the computer he gave to his girlfriend,” a passenger called Mantas said in Vilnius.
Mantas added: “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.”
Eyewitnesses saw Protasevich shaking and putting his head in his hands as he waited for the plane to land in Minsk. “He was nervous at first, but later, he understood he couldn’t change anything. He calmed down and accepted it,” one unnamed passenger added.
MINSK DETAINS COUPLE
Soon after, the journalist and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, 23, were detained. Michael O’Leary, the boss of Ryanair, said he believes the three other passengers taken from the plane were secret service KGB agents.
The journalist could face up to 15 years imprisonment for allegedly encouraging massive illegal protests against the country’s authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
He and the creator of the social media channel Nexta exposed Belarusian police brutality during anti-government demonstrations last year. Nexta and its sister channel, Nexta Live, have close to 2 million subscribers. Protasevich also has many followers through his online blog publication.
U.S. President Joe Biden described the detention of the journalist as “outrageous,” saying they were “shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press.”
The EU’s executive European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it was also an “unjustified intervention of military aircraft.”
She said all Western leaders had formed a “clear and unanimous stance” on punishing the Belarusian leadership.
BROADER INTERNATIONAL CONCERNS
Her words underscored broader concerns about the international implications of forcing a passenger plane to land. When an aircraft flies through global skies, the aircraft has the state’s nationality in which they are registered.
In this case, the Ryanair passenger plane is understood to be registered in Poland to “Ryanair Sun,” a subsidiary of the Irish airline.
When the plane is flying, regardless of its position in the skies, it remains Polish nationality.
Legislation allowing planes to overfly countries without the need to land is the “First Freedom of the Air.” These freedoms of the air are essential to enable passengers and traffic to move from one country to another worldwide.
The decision by Belarus to intercept a passenger aircraft in the air with a MiG-29 fighter jet and force it to land in a third country breaks this code. Ryanair boss, O’Leary, called it “state-sponsored piracy.”
But aviation experts say Belarus has not signed the International Air Services Transit Agreement, which embodies the “First Freedom of the Air.”
The tensions also reached into sports. Germany’s national track cycling team said it would not compete at next month’s Elite Track European Championships in Belarus to protest what the West called state-sponsored hijacking involving an opposition journalist.
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