Exiled Belarusian opposition figure Raman Pratasevich was horrified when he knew the flight he took to Lithuania was instead heading to Belarusian capital Minsk. When the Ryanair flight was diverted and forced to land at Minsk, Pratasevich was arrested and led away he said, "I'll get the death penalty here."
Pratasevich, who had worked for online news outlet NEXTA, which carried footage of mass protests against Belarusian President Lukashenko, was shaking when he realized that the plane would not land in Lithuania's Vilnius where it was heading from Athens in Greece, Reuters reported.
Though he now works for another outlet, he is wanted by the Belarusian administration, whichc smothered a popular pro-democracy movement ruthlessly last year. Pratasevich is accused of extremism and organizing mass riots and of inciting social hatred by Belarus.
Was Flight Hijacked on Lukashenko's Orders?
According to data from flight tracking website flightradar24.com, Ryanair flight 4978 was just two minutes away from crossing into Lithuanian airspace. The flight then changed direction following a "security alert," and descended towards the capital of Belarus, Minsk.
Upon landing in Minsk, Pratasevich was arrested immediately. Ryanair said the flight crew was notified by Belarus ATC of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.
The passenger plane was escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet of Belarus even as it travelled to Minsk.
However, Belarus denies the hijack charges. According to Belarusian authorities, the Ryanair crew were alerted about a "possible bomb on board." The Deputy Commander of Air Defense Forces, Major-General Andrey Gurtsevich, insists that it was the Ryanair captain who made a decision to land at Minsk-2.
After the dramatic arrest of Pratasevich at Minsk, the flight stayed on ground at the reserve airport for seven hours before it was allowed to proceed to Lithuania. In Vilnius, later in the day, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte received the passengers.
According to CNN, several EU leaders believe the plane was hijacked by Belarus. The incident sparked fury in international circles where concerns were raised over passenger safety. Some capitals called the Belarusian action as state-sanctioned hijacking.
Pratasevich and a dozen other journalists were a constant thorn on the side of Lukashenko, who fended off opposition protests last year using heavy-handed tactics. Pratasevich was instrumental in organizing protests against Lukshenko's 26-year rule. In Minsk, he was charged with "organizing mass riots and group actions that grossly violate public order." He is also on a government's list of men wanted on terrorism charges.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the arrest of the journalist was a "shocking act" and called for the immediate release of Protasevich. Lithuania, where Protasevich was living, asked the European Union and NATO to respond.
The head of EU's executive European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said people responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned and that EU leaders meeting in Brussels would discuss the next course of action.
The parliamentary foreign affairs panels of the US and seven European countries called for a ban on all overflights of Belarus, including to and from the country. They also called the flight hijacking an act of piracy.