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Press FreedomBelarus

Why Lukashenko diverted plane to catch blogger

Hanna Liubakova
May 24, 2021

The forced landing of a Ryanair plane in Minsk has resulted in the imprisonment of a dissident journalist. The president has raised the stakes on reporting in Belarus, a colleague of the arrested journalist writes.

Ryanair plane in Belarus
After the forced landing, Pratasevich was taken away, possibly to Minsk's KGB prisonImage: picture alliance/dpa/ONLINER.BY/AP

On Sunday,  authorities in Belarus forced a Ryanair plane to land in the capital, Minsk, citing a bomb threat. When it became clear that the aircraft was being diverted, one passenger's reaction stood out. 

A young man grabbed his head in panic. Once the plane landed, passengers left the plane and their belongings were checked. Security forces approached the man. He felt calmer but was still trembling. Shortly before they took him away in an unknown direction, he told people who were around: "A death penalty awaits me here."

It was Raman Pratasevich, a 26-year-old Belarusian blogger and journalist. He knew that his unexpected visit to Belarus meant a certain arrest, because he is on a terrorist watch list drawn up by the State Security Committee, still known as the KGB.

'Potential security threat'

Pratasevich was on his way back from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, where he is based. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered a MiG-29 jet fighter to escort the civilian plane to the Minsk airport. In a statement, Ryanair said the crew had been "notified by Belarus Air Traffic Control of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk."

The journalist had left Belarus for Poland in 2019 in fear of arrest. From there, he worked as the editor-in-chief of the influential Telegram channels Nexta and Nexta Live, which became the main source of information about protests when the internet was shut down after the disputed presidential election in August.

Since November, Pratasevich — like Nexta founder Stsiapan Putsila — has been on the government's list of more than 700 "individuals involved in terrorist activities."

Lukashenko targets press

With most opposition leaders having left Belarus, Nexta has played a key role in spreading information, posting updates, giving the time and location of rallies, and revealing facts about police brutality. Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, has accused social media and independent journalists of being responsible for organizing and coordinating mass opposition rallies.

When asked if he was afraid that Lukashenko's agents might get to him in Poland, Pratasevich said he was in the process of obtaining refugee status and would not be deported. A request for Raman's extradition had previously been sent by the Belarusian authorities to Poland's government, which did not comply.

Four prominent activists who are members of the Polish minority in Belarus were arrested — including the community leaders Andzelika Borys and Andrzej Poczobut. They were charged with breaching rules on mass gatherings during an annual folk fair, as well as inciting national and religious hatred, a charge punishable with a prison sentence of up to 12 years. The arrests have been accompanied by anti-Polish propaganda on state TV.

The regime launched a war on journalists and bloggers in Belarus months before last summer's election. In June, Ihar Losik, a consultant for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and the founder of another influential Telegram channel, Belarus of the Brain, was detained. Since then, the already dire situation has worsened.

Raid on tut.by

On May 18, security services raided the offices of tut.by, the largest media outlet in Belarus, as well as apartments of the website's journalists. The portal's editor-in-chief, Maryna Zolatava, and other journalists were arrested.

For over 20 years, tut.by has been popular among Belarusians, no matter their political views. Lukashenko's officials read tut.by, and so did his opponents. The website's reach set a record high in May — right before it was blocked — with its monthly unique users hitting 3.3 million, or 63% of Belarusian internet users. 

Dozens of independent news portals have already been blocked, hundreds of journalists were arrested or detained, and a number of newspapers have stopped being printed. But this was not enough. Lukashenko has continually raised the stakes of reporting in Belarus.

Pratasevich's trumped-up charges

Pratasevich is facing charges on at least three criminal counts. One of them is on "plotting mass riots," which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. There haven't been any accusations yet publicly made related to the allegations of his "terrorist” activities. But, as he is most probably being held in the KGB prison in Minsk, a lawyer was not allowed to see him. There is practically no information as to his health and the conditions in which he is being held.

At the time of his arrest, Pratasevich was working for Losik's Belarus of the Brain. Both are my friends. Although they have different personalities — Ihar is a quiet introvert while Raman is a loud extrovert — they share many similarities. Both were on the radar of Belarusian law enforcement since at least 2011, when they were involved in the so-called Revolution Through Social Networks in Minsk and other cities. Both were awarded a Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship at RFE/RL. Both are now jailed.

Bloggers became the first target for Lukashenko, who wants to silence the dissent. He must believe that it is technology — not his rule, human rights violations and the widespread poverty in Belarus — that brought people to the streets. So far, he has fought his opponents within Belarus. On Sunday, he proved that there are no bounds for his repressions.