Belarus Diverts Commercial Flight to Detain Opposition Journalist

Kamilla Sorskar Engen, Head of International Affairs

22 May 2021

State media in Belarus claimed the flight was diverted due to a bomb scare, in spite of the fact that the plane was closer to Vilnius than Minsk when diverted, and that no bomb was found after the plane was searched. States across Europe reacted with anger, accusing Belarus of ‘state terrorism’ by hijacking the plane, and have demanded consequences.

President Lukashenko has led Belarus since 1994 and has been accused of being Europe’s ‘last dictator’, ruling with an iron fist. Since the election in August (which was widely condemned as rigged), he has crushed opposition and dissent to his rule, resulting in many opposition figures being arrested or fleeing the country, such as opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled to Lithuania.
Roman Protasevich ran the influential opposition Telegram channels Nexta and Nexta Live. Tadeusz Giczan, editor-in-chief of Nexta, tweeted a quote from a passenger sitting next to Protasevich, who claimed that he said, “they’ll execute me here.”

ICAO, the UN agency for civil aviation, stated that it was concerned about “an apparent forced landing”, which may ‘be in contravention of the Chicago Convention’ setting out airspace laws and aircraft safety. Tom Tugendhat, House of Commons foreign affairs committee chairman, noted that "forcing an aircraft to land to silence opposition voices is an attack on democracy." Some have called for EU and NATO intervention. Dominic Raab, UK Foreign Secretary, said the “outlandish action” would have “serious implications.” Similarly, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said Lukashenko’s actions were "contrary to international law" and the response must be "strong and effective". Mateusz Morawiecki, Prime Minister of Poland, stated, "Hijacking a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism that cannot go unpunished."

The repercussions of this act may be significant and raises questions of international law and the legality of Belarus’ actions, as well as the potential punishment or sanctions. Some have labelled it an act of aggression and state terrorism by hijacking. The act raises issues around air safety, freedom of speech, and international diplomacy. The consequences for Lukashenko and his regime remain to be seen.

Read more about the arrest of Protasevich here: