Here’s how Belarus snatched a dissident from a Ryanair flight

May 25, 2021, 12:03 PM UTC

Journalist Raman Pratasevich was asked just one question when a Belarusian official singled him out from a crowd of passengers huddled on a bus after a fighter jet forced their flight to make an emergency landing in Minsk.

“One officer asked, pointing a finger at him: do you speak Russian?” recalled Saulius Danauskas, who was on the Ryanair Holdings Plc plane from Athens to Vilnius that was intercepted 10 minutes before its expected arrival in Lithuania. “They made a big show. But it was clear that this operation was after this one man.”

The grandfather, returning from a holiday in Greece with his wife and his daughter’s family, was among passengers and crew members that experienced a two-hour journey unfold into a prolonged nightmare as the Boeing 737-800 landed in Minsk. Once on the ground they were subjected to a security check that included sniffer dogs checking everyone, including babies.

For Danauskas it was clear the emergency was all staged and there was no bomb threat, which is what the flight attendants told panicked passengers. Most people on the plane were Lithuanians like him who also speak Russian given their past under Soviet rule.

The real target was Pratasevich, the 26-year-old critic of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko who had covered protests last year against the strongman’s brutal suppression. He was living in Vilnius since November, when he was listed as a wanted terrorist in Belarus, and Lithuania allowed him to stay in the country.

By the time Belarus security officials singled out Pratasevich on Sunday, he appeared calm and resigned to his fate.

Flanked by a group of soldiers and civilians, he was driven away in a black SUV at high speed, said a Greek passenger who asked not to be identified talking publicly about the incident.

Pratasevich’s girlfriend was searched and stayed in Minsk. At least three other people also didn’t get back on board, according to Lithuanian government officials.

The girlfriend, identified as Sofia Sapega by the European Humanities University she attends in Lithuania, was detained in Minsk on “groundless and made-up conditions,” the institution said in a statement.

“When the pilot announced we were landing in Minsk, he became very agitated, he tried to pull his computer and said this is all happening over him,” said Monika Simkiene, 40, who was traveling with three kids. “He just turned around to other passengers talking to him and said that he’s facing the death penalty.”

Caught unawares

The extraordinary steps taken to detain him amounted to the hijacking of a commercial flight and a violation of air travel protocol. It caught the West unawares and rushing to find an adequate response beyond words of condemnation. Whether any of it was done with the knowledge or approval of Russian President Vladimir Putin are among the many unanswered questions.

Belarus officials said they forced the plane to land due to a suspected bomb threat, adding later that it turned out to be fake. Despite the danger, however, passengers interviewed by Bloomberg said there was no urgency among the 50 to 60 officers present at the airport to carry out checks.

“It all happened in an old-fashioned Soviet manner,” said Danauskas. “Pandemic or no pandemic, Covid or no Covid — no one cared. It was very unpleasant.”

The search went on for two-and-a-half hours, during which they were offered no water, allowed to take bathroom breaks or make phone calls. Simkiene, whose youngest was in a stroller, observed that those hardships “are nothing in comparison to what awaits” the arrested reporter.

Upon arrival in Lithuania, passengers said they were asked to check for their identities and asked to cooperate with authorities. Two people, with Russian sounding names were sought, but they weren’t on the plane that left Minsk, the Greek traveler said.

Twenty four hours later, confusion reigns over how many many aspects of what exactly happened, including basic facts such as how people were on board. According to Lithuania’s criminal police, 121 of the 126 passengers who left Athens arrived in Vilnius. On Sunday, both Greece and Lithuania said 171 passengers and crew were on the flight. Ryanair has so far declined to explain the discrepancy in the figures, which could be about boarding passes versus reservations or excluding infant passengers that don’t pay for tickets.

The drama was an eye opener for Arthur Six, 25, a French citizen who works at the Euronext exchange and who was among the nine French travelers on the plane. “I didn’t know about the situation in the country after the break up of the Soviet Union,” he said. “Now I learned that this is a dictatorship.”

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