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"State hijacking": Belarus dictator fakes bomb threat to arrest dissident

(Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, file)

Even in the realm of crazy, Soviet-holdover dictators, Alexander Lukashenko sets a standard of bizarre that few if any can match. Yesterday, apparently under Lukashenko’s direct orders, Belarus’ armed forces forced a Ryanair flight to land at Minsk under a ruse of a bomb threat, only to arrest a dissident blogger. Roman Protasevich could face the death penalty:

The strongman president of Belarus sent a fighter jet to intercept a European airliner traveling through the country’s airspace on Sunday and ordered the plane to land in the capital, Minsk, where a prominent opposition journalist aboard was then seized, provoking international outrage.

The stunning gambit by Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, a brutal and erratic leader who has clung to power despite huge protests against his government last year, was condemned by European officials, who compared it to hijacking. It underscored that with the support of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Mr. Lukashenko is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to repress dissent.

There’s no word on Putin’s reaction to this move, but even Tsar Vlad I might find this move on the nutty side. Protasevich and 170 other people flew from Athens to Vilnius, a flight which took the Ryanair flight into Belarus airspace. Lukashenko and his security apparatus sent a MiG-29 fighter to intercept under the claim of a bomb threat. After seven hours the flight was allowed to proceed to Vilnius, but not with Protasevich, who apparently knew exactly what was happening the whole time:

After the plane was diverted to Minsk, Mr. Protasevich, 26, turned to fellow passengers “and said he was facing the death penalty,” one passenger, Monika Simkiene, told Agence France-Presse in Vilnius.

“He was not screaming, but it was clear that he was very much afraid,” another passenger, Edvinas Dimsa, recalled, according to A.F.P. “It looked like if the window had been open, he would have jumped out of it.”

What kind of dangerous criminal warranted this unprecedented maneuver? The kind that, er, insults Lukashenko on social media. No, really:

Mr. Protasevich is a co-founder and a former editor of the NEXTA channel on the social media platform Telegram, which has become a popular conduit for Mr. Lukashenko’s foes to share information and organize demonstrations against the government.

He fled the country in 2019, fearing arrest. But he has continued to roil Mr. Lukashenko’s regime while living in exile in Lithuania, so much so that he was charged in November with inciting public disorder and social hatred.

As a teenager, Mr. Protasevich became a dissident, first drawing scrutiny from law enforcement. He was expelled from a prestigious school for participating in a protest rally in 2011 and later was expelled from the journalism program of the Minsk State University.

Other governments now warn that diplomatic and economic sanctions for the “hijacking” of the Ryanair flight. Meetings will take place today to determine what kind of united response might be possible:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed a strong US response to the kidnaping of US citizens on the flight and the attack on journalism:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday condemned the forced landing of a Ryanair flight by Belarus and the arrest of an opposition journalist on board, calling it a “shocking act” that endangered the lives of U.S. citizens and everyone else on board.

In a statement, Blinked vowed that the U.S. would respond with its allies in the region, and called for the “immediate release” of journalist Raman Protasevich, who according to reports, was detained by Belarusian security forces after the flight landed.

“The United States once again condemns the Lukashenka regime’s ongoing harassment and arbitrary detention of journalists. We stand with the Belarusian people in their aspirations for a free, democratic, and prosperous future and support their call for the regime to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms,” said Blinken.

Lukashenko might be crazy, but he’s hardly alone. As the Wall Street Journal editorial board warned last night, the rest of the world cannot afford to let this offense slide. Other tinpot dictators are watching:

The implications of this state-sponsored hijacking aren’t pretty. A head of state used his military to order the diversion of a civilian flight between two European Union countries. His government lied about a bomb threat. And then it snatched a political opponent who was working in exile.

If this is allowed to be a precedent without consequences, expect more such hijackings for the purpose of making political arrests. Imagine how Vladimir Putin or North Korea might interpret this as a license to intercept civilian planes.

The risks of an accident are high, especially if a pilot refuses to cooperate with the hijacking government’s orders. Will the government then shoot the plane down? After the Belarus stunt, many pilots may refuse to believe claims of a bomb threat in the future.

Belarus and Lukashenko operate under the protection of Putin, who doesn’t want Belarus to break away as Ukraine attempted to do in 2014. It seems unlikely that Putin will do much to undermine Lukashenko’s position as a result. However, the EU and the US can — and should — apply immediate sanctions against all those who took part in this kidnaping, including freezing of assets and especially bars on travel anywhere in the West. In fact, it might be a good time for Western air services to suspend all flights in and out of — and especially through — Belarus. That would at least address the safety issues in the short term, while the long-term safety issues presented by the demented Lukashenko require more complicated diplomacy to address.