EU Demands Belarus Explain Diversion of Plane, Detention of Journalist 

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EU Demands Belarus Explain Diversion of Plane, Detention of Journalist 

European Union governments are demanding an immediate explanation from Belarus about the diversion of a Lithuanian-bound flight to Minsk, where authorities arrested one of its passengers, opposition activist and journalist Raman Pratasevich. Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said the commercial flight was directed to land “by force,” while Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called the event a “reprehensible act of state terrorism.” Nauseda slammed the arrest of Pratasevich and said the international community “must take immediate steps that this does not repeat.” His reaction came in an e-mailed statement quoted by Reuters that followed his initial reaction to the incident on Twitter. Mateusz said on Twitter that he has asked the European Council’s president to discuss immediate sanctions against Belarus during a meeting scheduled for May 24. A senior official at the German Foreign Ministry, Miguel Berger, also responded to Pratasevich’s arrest on Twitter, demanding an “immediate explanation by the Government of #Belarus on the diversion of a Ryan Air flight within the EU to Minsk and the alleged detention of a journalist.” European Council President Charles Michel  expressed concern and called on Belarus authorities to release the flight and all its passengers, adding that an investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) “will be essential.” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the incident requires a “strong and united” response from the European Union. Pratasevich was taken away by police shortly after the Ryanair flight, which was on a scheduled route from Athens to Vilnius, landed in the Belarusian capital following what appears to be a false bomb threat. FILE – A supporter of Belarusian opposition blogger Roman Pratasevich holding a placard reading ‘I am/we are Roman Protasevich waits for the arrival of a Ryanair flight after it was diverted to Belarus, at Vilnius Airport in Vilnius, May 23, 2021.No bomb was found, according to Belarusian media reports. It was unclear who had reported the bomb threat. Ryanair said in a statement e-mailed to RFE/RL that its crew was notified by Belarus of a potential security threat on board and were “instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.” “The aircraft landed safely and passengers were off-loaded while security checks were completed by local authorities,” the statement said. “Nothing untoward was found and authorities cleared the aircraft to depart together with passengers and crew after approx. 5 hrs on the ground in Minsk.” The aircraft was expected to depart at 7 p.m. local time in Minsk, Ryanair said, adding that it has notified the relevant national and European safety and security agencies. Authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered a fighter jet to escort the Ryanair jet, which was carrying more than 100 passengers, state news agency BelTA reported. The headquarters of Belarusian opposition leader Svaitlana Tsikhanouskaya said the flight was near the border with Lithuania when the pilots received a message about a bomb on board. It was closer to the airport in Vilnius but instead it headed to Minsk: Pratasevich was a key administrator of the Telegram channel NEXTA Live, which has been covering the protests that broke out in Belarus following the country’s disputed presidential election last August. In November, Belarusian authorities announced that Pratasevich, along with Stsyapan Putsila — also a NEXTA Live administrator — were being investigated on suspicions of organizing mass disorder, disrupting the social order, and inciting social hatred. Pratasevich was a 2017-18 Vaclav Havel Journalism fellow in Prague. The Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship — a joint initiative of RFE/RL and the Czech Foreign Ministry — is available to aspiring, independent journalists in the European Union’s Eastern Partnership countries and Russia. Belarus has been rocked by protests since Lukashenko, in power since 1994, was declared the landslide winner of the poll amid allegations of vote-rigging. Since then, more than 30,000 people have been detained, hundreds beaten or tortured, and journalists targeted in the crackdown by Lukashenka, whose government has been hit by Western sanctions. In October, a court in Minsk designated the NEXTA Live channel and its logo as extremist and instructed the Information Ministry to restrict access to information resources using the name and logo of the Telegram channel, as well as their distribution in the Belarusian segment of the Internet. NEXTA Live then changed its name and logo, switching from the Latin transliteration of its name to a Cyrillic one. Fearing prosecution, Pratasevich and Putsila fled the country and their whereabouts have not been known. In October, Putsila, along with several Belarusian activists, received the European Parliament’s 2020 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Media in Belarus have been targeted by the Lukashenka government in the ongoing crackdown. The watchdog Reporters Without Borders has designated Belarus as the most dangerous spot in Europe for journalists. On May 21, Belarusian security forces raided a Minsk studio used by a Polish-based TV station that has produced investigations critical of Lukashenko and his associates. Belsat said uniformed officers broke into a studio on May 21 used for producing a talk show, detaining six people, including four cameramen. In April, the channel published an investigation into the business dealings of Lukashenko’s daughter-in-law and others associated with him. Earlier this year, two journalists for Belsat were handed what their lawyers called an “absurd” sentence of two years in prison each for reporting live from a rally in Minsk in November. Katerina Borisevich, a journalist for the independent Tut.by news website, speaks on a mobile phone after being released from prison in the town of Gomel, some 310kms south-east of Minsk on May 19, 2021.Earlier this week, police launched a probe of the country’s largest independent online media outlet, Tut.by, searching the homes of several of its editors and blocking its website. Meanwhile, a Minsk court on May 21 sentenced another reporter who covered the police raid on Tut.by to a 15-day prison sentence, a media advocacy group said. The Belarusian Association of Journalists said 27 media workers are currently behind bars, either awaiting trial or serving sentences.  

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