While the international reaction to Belarus’ daring act of air piracy is swift and furious, those who know the journalist snatched that Ryanair flight on Sunday are deeply concerned for his fate and that of the many other journalists and bloggers who are now languishing in Belarusian prisons.
“For us it is very close,” Alexander Lukashuk, Belarusian service director of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE / RL) told Fox News. “And one thing more important in terms of the human dimension than hijacking a plane, which in itself is quite astonishing.”
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Belarus, under President Alexander Lukashenko, has always had a “problem of human rights and democratic values,” Lukashuk said. “After this hijacking, the US, EU and NATO will have to view Lukashenko as a security threat.”
Belarus sent a MiG fighter jet to force flight from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, to divert to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, saying they feared there was a bomb in edge. The plane had entered Belarusian airspace when this happened.
The plane barely landed when police arrested Roman Protasevich, 26, a popular and swaggering blogger and one of the founders of the Telegram channel Nexta, where many people around the world hear from Belarus and where they saw the protests spread. across the country after the disputed presidential election last August. There was no bomb on the plane.
Protasevich cut his teeth at the US-funded RFE / RL through a scholarship program. After Nexta, he jumped on another Telegram channel, Belamova, to play the role of Igor Losik, who was also arrested by Belarusian authorities and faces a 12-year prison sentence. Lukashuk worked with both of them.
“[Protasevich is] a very courageous young person, never thinking of his safety, very independent. Not quite a traditional journalist. He likes to be alone, to play by his own rules, ”Lukashuk recalled.
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Having found himself on an official list of “terrorists” for helping to organize “riots”, Protasevich fled to Poland and then to Lithuania for his safety. There have never been riots in Belarus; they were peaceful demonstrations. Belarusians often fail to notice that a storefront has been smashed when protesters have taken to the streets day after day, and then Sunday after Sunday, for many weeks.
These came to a halt when Lukashenko and his security services tightened the screws, imprisoning or fining opposition figures, journalists and anyone they spotted showing sympathy for the opposition. Recently someone was fined for wearing red and white socks. Red and white are the colors of the movement for change and to end Lukashenko, often called “the last dictator of Europe”. But RFE / RL’s Lukashuk detects Moscow’s hand.
“We spoke to Roman Protasevich’s father, who is a retired colonel. He was stripped of his rank along with 80 other soldiers 10 days ago by Lukashenko and he told us that the Belarusian security services could not perform such an operation on their own “. Lukashuk said. He added that Russia was quite adept at tackling dissidents in the West. When asked what Russia would gain from this incident, Lukashuk replied: “These are multiple messages. They will gain whatever they want. Of course, there is one message: they exercise their muscles. “
A lot of people are suggesting that Russia may be behind this, but at this point it’s all speculation. The Russian Foreign Ministry defended Minsk’s actions.
But as one Russian journalist put it, “we should be afraid”.
At least in the USSR there were borders. Now all bets are off.
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