Furious Backlash – In what some observers are referring to as “state-sponsored hijacking,” a Belarussian jet forced a Ryanair jetliner flying from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday passenger airliner to land in Minsk so authorities could arrest a journalist on board. The dissident is Raman Pratasevich, a key foe of authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who ran a popular Telegraph messaging app that played a key role in helping organize massive protests against Lukashenko.
The government of Belarus used a transparent ruse to justify the operation. According to Associated Press (AP):
Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the crew there was a bomb threat against the plane as it was crossing through Belarus airspace on Sunday and ordered it to land. A Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane in a brazen show of force by Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for over a quarter-century.
The apparent target of the forced landing: Raman Pratasevich, who is “a 26-year-old activist and journalist who ran a popular messaging app that played a key role in helping organize massive protests against the authoritarian leader,” AP reports. “He and his Russian girlfriend were led off the plane shortly after landing — and authorities haven’t said where they’re being held.”
According to AP:
Passengers described Pratasevich’s shock when he realized the plane was going to Minsk. “I saw this Belarusian guy with girlfriend sitting right behind us. He freaked out when the pilot said the plane is diverted to Minsk. He said there’s death penalty awaiting him there,” passenger Marius Rutkauskas said after the plane finally arrived in Vilnius. “We sat for an hour after the landing. Then they started releasing passengers and took those two. We did not see them again.”
“State-sponsored hijacking” is what RyanAir CEO Michael O’Leary called the events this weekend, according to the Wall Street Journal. “The incident has sparked an international outcry and raised questions over the legality of the plane’s grounding and the ramifications for the airline industry,” the Journal reports.
Thankfully, in a rare unified, prompt the European Union responded loudly and clearly. On Monday it agreed Monday to impose new sanctions against Belarus, including banning its airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc.
While this is indeed a horrible act by the Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko. a willing puppet of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, this isn’t the first time a civilian jet has been intercepted by military aircraft and forced down to arrest passengers. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan used U.S. F-14s jet fighters from the carrier Saratoga in the Mediterranean to force an Egyptian airliner to fly to a U.S. naval base in Sicily.
The airliner was carrying four terrorists who had just hijacked an Italian cruise liner and brutally murdered an elderly disabled American tourist, throwing the wheelchair-bound man overboard. The men had negotiated a deal to go to Egypt.
Reagan had vowed that the terrorists would not evade justice. The significant difference in the two incidents – one was conducted by a democracy to bring cold blooded murderers to justice. In the other, a young, peaceful democracy activist now faces torture or death by a murderous illegitimate regime.