It has all the parts of a Jason Bourne plot: A business flight carrying a dissident journalist is intercepted by a MiG-29 fighter jet beneath orders from the strongman president of Belarus.
This protagonist could be very a lot actual. His identify is Roman Protasevich, and on Sunday, he drew worldwide consideration as a result of the Belarusian authorities and its authoritarian chief went to extraordinary lengths to cease him.
Mr. Protasevich, 26, was touring by business airline from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, when the Belarusian air pressure scrambled a fighter jet. The flight, on the Irish airline Ryanair, was diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, the place the millennial opposition determine was taken into custody.
The extensively condemned tactic was the newest try by Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the nation’s authoritarian chief, to suppress the influential voice of Mr. Protasevich.
Why is the federal government so fixated on Mr. Protasevich?
There are few remaining sources of impartial information in Belarus, the place most media retailers had been pressured to close down after widespread protests over a disputed presidential election in 2020.
Mr. Protasevich is a co-founder and a former editor of the NEXTA channel on the social media platform Telegram, which has grow to be a well-liked conduit for Mr. Lukashenko’s foes to share info and manage demonstrations in opposition to the federal government.
He fled the nation in 2019, fearing arrest. However he has continued to roil Mr. Lukashenko’s regime whereas dwelling in exile in Lithuania, a lot in order that he was charged in November with inciting public dysfunction and social hatred.
As a young person, Mr. Protasevich grew to become a dissident, first drawing scrutiny from regulation enforcement. He was expelled from a prestigious faculty for collaborating in a protest rally in 2011 and later was expelled from the journalism program of the Minsk State College.
What occurred on Sunday?
Mr. Protasevich was returning to Vilnius from an financial convention in Greece with the Belarusian opposition chief Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Greek officers mentioned.
The flight, which had been carrying some 170 passengers, ought to have taken about three hours. Because it approached the border between Belarus and Lithuania, a MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to intercept it.
Mr. Lukashenko, who’s also known as “Europe’s final dictator,” personally ordered the fighter jet to escort the Ryanair airplane to the Minsk airport after a bomb menace, his press service mentioned. In accordance with the assertion, Mr. Lukashenko, an ally of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, gave an “unequivocal order” to “make the airplane do a U-turn and land.”
No bomb was discovered on board, the nation’s regulation enforcement authorities mentioned.
Antony J. Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, sharply criticized the federal government of Belarus on Twitter on Sunday for its detention of Mr. Protasevich. He known as it a “brazen and surprising act to divert a business flight and arrest a journalist.”
“We demand a global investigation and are coordinating with our companions on subsequent steps,” Mr. Blinken mentioned. “The USA stands with the folks of Belarus.”
What sort of punishment is he dealing with?
The federal government’s major safety company in Belarus, known as the Ok.G.B., positioned Mr. Protasevich’s identify on an inventory of terrorists. If he’s accused and convicted of terrorism, he might face the loss of life penalty.
The fees of inciting public dysfunction and social hatred carry a punishment of greater than 12 years in jail.