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Belarus arrests journalist after diverting flight to Minsk, says opposition leader

Published: (Updated: ) in European News by .

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya says journalist Roman Protasevich faces the death penalty.

Authorities in Belarus on Sunday forced a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania to be diverted to Minsk and arrested a government-critical journalist, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said on Twitter.

She said Roman Protasevich faces the death penalty and demanded his immediate release, as well as a United Nations investigation and sanctions against the government of Alexander Lukashenko.

The official Belta news agency reported that a plane had been diverted, but did not mention an arrest. It did, however, report that the order for the plane to land was given by Lukashenko.

While boarding the plane in Athens, Protasevich noticed he was being photographed by “dodgy-looking people,” wrote Tadeusz Giczan, editor-in-chief of Protasevich’s employer Nexta, a news channel on the social media app Telegram that late last year was ruled “extremist” by a Belarusian court.

Giczan said those taking the photographs were agents from Belarus’ intelligence agency and that when the plane entered Belarusian airspace, the security operatives “initiated a fight with the Ryanair crew,” insisted there was an explosive device on board and forced the crew to send a distress signal.

Giczan added that a fighter jet then escorted the plane to Minsk airport, where security services boarded the plane and arrested Protasevich — a journalist and photographer who left the country in 2019 to work for Nexta.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda described it as an “unprecedented event” and said the Belarusian “regime is behind the abhorrent action.”

Tikhanovskaya is the public face of an opposition that claims to have won the August 2020 presidential election. The official result gave Lukashenko 80 percent of the vote, but that outcome has been widely condemned as fraudulent.

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The result sparked huge protests across Belarus that led to a fierce crackdown by forces loyal to Lukashenko, with thousands arrested and at least four killed.

Opposition leaders are either in prison or fled the country; Tikhanovskaya is in Vilnius.


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