Exiled activist detained at Belarus airport: opposition
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Belarusian opposition broadcaster Telegram Nexta said on Sunday that its former editor-in-chief and exiled opposition activist Roman Protasevich was arrested in Minsk after his flight made an emergency landing under the president’s orders Alexander Lukashenko.
The move comes amid intensifying repression following historic protests that hit the former Soviet country after a contested presidential election last year.
Nexta Live and its sister channel Nexta – with nearly 2 million Telegram messenger subscribers – are prominent voices of the Belarusian opposition and have helped mobilize protesters.
Belarusians have taken to the streets to demand the resignation of Lukashenko, who ruled with an iron fist for more than two decades and won a landslide victory in August in an election which opponents say was rigged .
Protasevich was on a Ryanair flight from Athens to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius on Sunday, which made an emergency landing following a bomb threat, TASS news agency reported citing the Minsk airport press service.
“The plane was checked, no bombs were found and all the passengers were sent for another security search,” Nexta said. “Among them was … Nexta journalist Roman Protasevich. He was arrested.”
He added that Protasevich said he was followed before boarding the flight.
The Belarusian Interior Ministry initially confirmed the detention on Telegram, but the post was later deleted.
Last year Protasevich, 26, and Nexta founder Stepan Putilo, 22, were added to Belarus’ list of “individuals involved in terrorist activities”.
The two bloggers – who live in Poland – were added to the list on the basis of previous charges of provoking mass unrest, an offense that could lead to 15 years in prison.
Belarus also called Nexta Telegram channels and its logo “extremists” and ordered them to block them.
– ‘Hateful action’ –
Lukashenko’s press-service Telegram channel said the president had given the order to turn around. He added that he also ordered a Mig-29 fighter jet to accompany the plane.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda on Twitter called the incident “an unprecedented event” and said the “Belarusian regime was behind this heinous action”.
“It is absolutely obvious that this is a secret service operation to capture the plane in order to detain activist and blogger Roman Protasevich,” exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya told Telegram.
The opposition believes that Tikhanovskaya, who fled to neighboring Lithuania after the elections, was the real winner in last year’s presidential ballot.
Tikhanovskaya and Nexta claim that Protasevich could face the death penalty in Belarus.
A member of the Nexta team, Tadeusz Giczan, said on Twitter that representatives of the Belarusian security agency were on the flight with Protasevich.
“Then, when the plane entered Belarusian airspace, KGB officers started a brawl with the Ryanair crew, insisting on the presence of an IED on board,” he said. .
A spokeswoman for the state-owned “Lithuanian Airports” company, Lina Beisine, told AFP that Minsk airport said the flight was redirected “due to a conflict between a member of the crew. and passengers “.
There was no immediate reaction from Ryanair.
The European Union and the United States have sanctioned Lukashenko and dozens of officials and businessmen linked to his regime with asset freezes and visa bans.
Historic protests in Belarus, which left at least four people dead, have now subsided, but journalists and activists continue to face prison terms afterwards.
© 2021 AFP