Lithuanian prosecutors launched a criminal investigation Sunday into the forced diversion of a RyanAir flight en route to Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, to Minsk, Belarus, where police arrested prominent dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich, the Lithuanian general prosecutor’s office said. The potential charges include hijacking a plane for terrorism purposes and other violations of International law, Reuters reports. Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said this “unprecedented situation” is being “investigated very thoroughly,” and passengers were asked to give evidence at the airport.
The RyanAir flight from Athens was only a few miles from Lithuanian airspace when Belarusian air traffic control ordered it to turn around and land in Minsk, citing a potential security threat, later identified as a purported bomb report. Belarus’ authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, personally gave an “unequivocal order” to scramble a MiG-29 fighter jet to “make the plane to a U-turn and led,” his state press service said.
Pratasevich, 26, has been living in exile since Belarus charged him with inciting hatred and disorder for his news outlet NEXTA’s coverage of Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown on huge protests last year, following an election widely seen as rigged to give the president yet another term. Pratasevich was added to the state terrorism list last year, and fellow passengers on the RyanAir flight said he appeared terrified when he learned where the flight was headed, telling them he faces execution in Minsk.
The forced diversion of a passenger flight, evidently on the pretense of a fake bomb threat, was met with international condemnation. The Greek Foreign Ministry called it a “state hijacking” while Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called it an “act of state terrorism.” European official said they will discuss further sanctions against Belarus and consider declaring the country’s airspace unsafe for commercial aviation. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said the U.S. should consider that, too. “No travelers can feel safe if state sponsored hijacking becomes acceptable,” he tweeted.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. demands the “immediate release” of Pratasevich and said the “shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime” requires “full investigation.”
In Russia, which typically backs Lukashenko, the response was more approving. Vyacheslav Lysakov, a parliamentary ally of President Vladimir Putin, called Pratasevich’s arrest a “brilliant special operation,” The New York Times reports, while Margarita Simonyan, editor of the pro-Putin RT television channel, said Lukashenko “played it beautifully.” Peter Weber