Pratasevich, who lives in exile in Poland, was the editor and creator of the Telegram channels through which the protests against Lukashenko for electoral fraud were organized in August last year.
At 2:31 p.m. on Sunday, May 23, the Twitter account Flightradar24 published an unusual tweet in which it reported that Ryanair flight FR4978, which took off from Athens and was scheduled to land in Vilnius, had not reached its destination. It was diverted a few hours earlier to Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
What made the tweet even more exceptional was the following: “According to media reports, a Belarusian journalist, who was on board the flight, has been arrested after the diversion to Minsk.”
That Belarusian journalist is Raman Pratasevich, a 26-year-old blogger living in exile in Poland. Pratasevich, who was the editor and founder of the influential Telegram channels Nexta Y Nexta LiveHe had taken a flight in Greece that day and was heading to Lithuania (a country that borders Belarus, Latvia and Poland; the latter place where he has his residence).
According to reports in media a Belarus journalist, that was onboard the flight, was arrested after the diversion to Minsk. pic.twitter.com/MQyvXsDExM
– Flightradar24 (@ flightradar24) May 23, 2021
However, when the aircraft was flying over Belarusian airspace, it was diverted under the pretext of an alleged bomb threat. A Mig-29 fighter escorted the Ryanair commercial jet and forced it to descend and land in Minsk. An unprecedented act.
Belarus accuses Pratasevich of terrorism and of being the organizer of the protests that took place in August 2020 against the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko. In those elections Lukashenko was proclaimed the winner for the sixth time in a row, with 80% of the votes, despite growing accusations of corruption and fraud. Channels Nexta created by Pratasevich on Telegram served the opponents to coordinate.
According to the testimonies of some passengers who were on board the Ryanair flight, Pratasevich was “angry” because he immediately realized that the aircraft had changed course and landed in Belarus.
“As soon as the plane changed course Pratasevich panicked and grabbed his head with his hands. Until then he had not shown signs of nervousness, “two passengers tell Radio Free Europe.
In an interview with Deutsche Welle, journalist Franak Viacorka, assistant to the opposition leader Svetlana Tijanóvskaya, says that Pratasevich was in contact with him before embarking in Athens and told him that he suspected that he was being followed.
Video of Raman Pratasevich released by the Belarusian Government
Viacorka describes the journalist as “Lukashenko’s personal enemy” and explains that Pratasevich “posted videos and photographs of the protests against torture in prisons, of the conditions of the cells. He was one of the most prominent figures when it came to denouncing the human rights violations that take place in Belarus.”
“I think what we have seen has been Lukashenko’s personal revenge against Raman,” Viacorka told the aforementioned media.
Prison and ‘confession’
The Belarusian police confirmed the journalist’s whereabouts on Monday. Pratasevich is in Minsk Pretrial Prison No. 1, as reported by Olga Chemodánova, spokesperson for the Belarusian Interior Ministry, on her Telegram channel.
In turn, he rejected the information that the reporter had been admitted to a hospital due to the sudden deterioration of his health.
The young man’s mother informed various media that she had received a call informing her that her son had been hospitalized due to a heart problem and that his condition was critical.
“Raman has heart problems and that is why he did not do military service. On one occasion he was in a pre-infarct state. If they did something to him, that could cause a heart attack, “his mother explained to the channel. Belsat.
Meanwhile, a pro-government Telegram channel published a video, which was later reproduced on public television, where Pratasevich denies that he has “health problems” and assures that the treatment he has received by the security forces is “correct” . He also says he is “collaborating with the investigation” and admits his “guilt” having organized mass riots in Minsk.
Pratasévich’s girlfriend, Sofía Sapega, a Russian student at the European Humanitarian University in Vilna, has also been arrested. According to her relatives, Sapega is being held in the infamous Okrestina detention center in Minsk, where dozens of protesters were abused and tortured after the 2020 elections.
The reporter, former director of the Telegram channel Nexta, the main source of information on the anti-government protests that erupted after the fraudulent presidential elections of August 2020, could be sentenced to 15 years in jail.
The KGB included him in November 2020 on the list of most wanted terrorists after the Justice brought charges against him for organizing mass disorders, violating public order and instigating social discord.
According to the Belarusian pro-government newspapers, it was President Lukashenko himself who gave the order for the MiG-29 fighter to escort the Ryanair flight under the false bomb threat. After intercepting the aircraft in Minsk, no bomb was found inside the cabin of the Ryanair plane.
Pratasevich now faces various crimes in Belarus, including incitement to hatred against the government. In addition, he is included in the list of “individuals involved in terrorist activities”. Belarusian opponents denounce that this 26-year-old is currently facing the death penalty in his native country.
“The forced landing of a commercial passenger plane to illegally detain a journalist and political opponent is totally reprehensible and an unacceptable act of aggression that cannot be allowed,” said the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, daily Financial times.
The head of community diplomacy, Josep Borrell, has summoned the Ambassador of Belarus in Brussels, Aleksandr Mikhnevich, to convey the “firm condemnation” of the EU to the hijacking of the Ryanair plane and demand the “immediate release” of Pratasevich. Other European capitals have taken similar initiatives.
“By carrying out this coercive act, Belarusian authorities have endangered the safety of passengers and crew “Borrell said in a statement on behalf of the 27 member states. “It is another blatant attempt by the Belarusian authorities to silence all the voices of the opposition,” underlines the High Representative for Foreign Policy.
As reported Juan Sanhermelando, the Heads of State and Government of the 27 will discuss new sanctions against Lukashenko at the face-to-face summit in retaliation against this action that some of them, such as the Polish Mateusz Morawiecki, have already labeled “state terrorism.”
“It is an amazing and scandalous case, it is an act of State piracy that cannot go unpunished “, maintains the French Secretary of State for the EU, Clément Beaune.
On the other hand, Russia has defended the actions of the Belarusian authorities and, with regard to Pratasevich’s arrest, has considered it an internal matter.