Belarus Daily | 23 May

A Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was diverted in Belarusian airspace: Blogger Raman Pratasevich, who was on board, was detained

23 May 2021 | Voice of Belarus
Raman Pratasevich.

A Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was diverted in Belarusian airspace: Raman Pratasevich was on board

On 23 May, a Ryanair aircraft flying from Athens to Vilnius made an emergency landing in Minsk. Initially, the Belarusian authorities and the airport administration said that its pilots had sent a distress signal. However, this turned out to be a lie. Ryanair reported that the Belarusian Air Traffic Administration notified the pilots of a “potential security threat” on board, ordering them to land in Minsk despite the fact that the nearest airport was Vilnius. According to Flightradar24, the plane was already almost at the border with Lithuania when it was forced to turn around and land in Minsk.

As “Pool of the First”, Alexander Lukashenko’s official Telegram channel reported, Lukashenko personally “gave an unequivocal order: turn the plane around and get ready for its landing”. A Belarusian Air Force MiG-29 fighter jet was dispatched to escort the civilian plane. The Belarusian side also used a Mi-24 helicopter during the Ryanair flight incident, as reported by DELFI, quoting Asta Skaisgirytė, chief foreign policy adviser to the President of Lithuania. According to her, Belarus used two types of military equipment to land the plane: a MiG-29 military fighter jet and a Mi-24 helicopter. Skaisgirytė added that initially, there were inaccurate reports of explosives on board the landing plane. She believes that what happened bears resemblance with the actions of the Belarusian KGB.

After landing, the plane was checked and no explosives were found. The editor of the opposition Telegram channel Belarus Golovnogo Mozga, Raman Pratasevich, was among the passengers. The Belarusian regime declared him a “terrorist”. He was detained.

Before taking the flight, Raman Pratasevich informed his friends that he had noticed he was being followed. An unidentified person at the airport in Athens, who was standing behind him in the passport control line, photographed his passport and quickly left the line.

Ryanair FR4978 had 171 passengers on board at the time of landing in Minsk Airport. As of 8:30 pm, information was available about just 149 passengers, and none about the remaining 22 passengers.

Reaction of the European Commission, politicians and country leaders to the Ryanair incident

Leader of the Belarusian opposition Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said:

“It is absolutely obvious that this was a secret service operation to hijack the aircraft in order to detain activist and blogger Raman Pratasevich.

“The regime endangered the safety of passengers on board and civil aviation as a whole to attack a man who was the editor of one of the largest Belarusian independent Telegram channels. This was the only reason he was declared a terrorist.”

The office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has already contacted Ryanair and the International Civil Aviation Organization, demanding an investigation into the incident and taking measures up to the exclusion of Belarus from the ICAO.

“After today, no one is guaranteed safety in Belarusian airspace. After all, the regime is abusing air traffic rules in order to capture those who disagree,” Tsikhanouskaya said.

On his Twitter account, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda called the situation with the plane unprecedented and demanded the release of Raman Pratasevich. In his statement on the official Facebook page, the president called on NATO and EU allies to immediately respond “to the threat posed by the Belarusian regime to international civil aviation”.

“I demand that the Belarusian regime immediately release the detained person and allow him and all the other passengers to continue their journey to Vilnius. I am calling on our NATO and EU allies to react to the threat that the Belarusian regime poses to international civil aviation. The international community must immediately take action so that similar incidents do not happen again. I will raise this issue at the EU Council tomorrow in Brussels,” Nausėda wrote.

Polish politician, former Polish Prime Minister and EU President Donald Tusk called the Ryanair hijacking an “act of state terrorism” and called for tough and immediate reaction from European political institutions.

Incumbent Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also called the hijacking “an act of state terrorism that cannot be left unpunished”. Mateusz Morawiecki asked the Council of Europe to add the seizure of the plane by the Belarusian authorities to tomorrow’s discussion agenda.

Head of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen called the “forced landing” of a flight from Athens in Minsk unacceptable. “Any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences,” said the head of the European Commission.

State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany Miguel Berger demanded an immediate explanation from the government of Belarus.

Who is Raman Pratasevich

Raman Pratasevich is a 26-year-old Belarusian activist, blogger and editor of Telegram channels recognized as extremist in Belarus. He studied at the Faculty of Journalism of the Belarusian State University. However, Raman did not graduate from the university. As he himself said in an interview, he was expelled “for political reasons”.

Raman worked as a journalist for several Belarusian independent mass media. Later, he became the editor-in-chief of one of the most popular Telegram channels founded by blogger Stsiapan Putsila. Before and after the 2020 presidential elections, this Telegram channel became one of the main sources of information about the protests.

In October last year, this channel was declared extremist. Moreover, even the channel’s logo became recognized as extremist. Shortly before that, Raman Pratasevich announced that he was leaving this project and intended to do something else (in April 2021, the Telegram channel managed by Pratasevich was also recognized as extremist).

In November, the Investigative Committee of Belarus opened criminal cases against Pratasevich under several articles. He is being accused under Article 293 of the Criminal Code (“Mass riots”), Article 342 of the Criminal Code (“Organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order or active participation in them”) and Article 130 of the Criminal Code (“Incitement of racial, national, religious or other social hatred or discord”). In addition, the KGB added him to the list of organizations and individuals involved in terrorist activities. Also, Raman was included in the international wanted list.

For the past few years, Raman has lived outside Belarus. In February this year, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Belarus demanded that Poland arrest Pratasevich and hand him over to Belarusian law enforcement agencies. However, at that time, as Pratasevich stated on his pages in social networks, he had already lived in another country for 5 months.

On 4 May, Alexander Lukashenko signed a decree to deprive more than 80 former servicemen and law enforcement employees of their military ranks for “defamatory actions”. Among them was Raman’s father – reserve lieutenant colonel Dzmitry Pratasevich.