Roman Protasevich, a prominent activist and reporter, grabbed headlines across the globe after reports emerged of the Belarusian government and its authoritarian leader going to extraordinary lengths to arrest him.
Protasevich, 26, was travelling with his girlfriend, Sofia Sapieha, on a commercial airline from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, when a Belarusian MIG-29 military jet forced the Ryanair flight to land at Minsk airport, where he was taken into custody. A bomb alert was cited as the official reason for diverting the plane to Minsk.
The incident has sparked worldwide outrage with many countries including the United States, condemning Belarusian authorities, including the country's president, Aleksander Lukashenko, for forcing down a civilian aircraft over its airspace in order to arrest a critic.
Protasevich is the founder and former editor of NEXTA – a Telegram channel with more than a million subscribers. The channel has been vocal about its criticism of Lukashenko and played an important role in broadcasting huge opposition protests against the authoritarian leader and his government. Protasevich fled the country in 2019, fearing his arrest but has continued to rail against Lukashenko's regime while living in exile in Lithuania. He is now facing the death penalty in Belarus.
KGB Agents Followed Protasevich, Tried to Take Photos of His Passport
CNN journalist Bianna Golodryga shared Telegram messages Protasevich sent out to his colleagues about a suspected KGB agent he thought was following him. "He's attempting to photograph my documents," he said in one message, while another reads, "He's at my gate."
According to the Daily Beast, Protasevich noticed a strange passenger carrying a leather case next to him in line at passport control at the airport in Athens on Sunday morning. The individual tried to photograph the journalist's passport then turned around and left. The journalist described this in his Belarus Golovnogo Mozga blog, the second largest Telegram channel in the country.
KGB Operatives Faked Bomb Threat to Ground Plane in Minsk
According to a series of tweets posted by Tadeusz Giczan, the editor-in-chief of NEXTA, KGB operatives boarded the Ryanair flight in Athens along with Protasevich, who noticed one man taking photos of him at the gate. Giczan added that as soon as the plane entered Belarus airspace the KGB agents initiated a fight with crew members claiming there was an IED device onboard the aircraft.
The crew, under the impression that they were getting hijacked, sent out an SOS and a MiG-29 jet was scrambled to intercept and escort the plane to Minsk, where security services entered the aircraft and arrested Protasevich, according to Giczan.
In a statement, Ryanair said the flight landed after being "notified of a potential security threat," and that "(n)othing untoward was found and authorities cleared the aircraft to depart with passengers and crew." The statement made no mention of Protasevich's arrest.
Mr. Lukashenko, who is often referred to as "Europe's last dictator," personally ordered the fighter jet to escort the Ryanair plane to the Minsk airport after a bomb threat, his press service said. According to the statement, Lukashenko, an ally of Russian president gave an "unequivocal order" to "make the plane do a U-turn and land."
Member of the Presidium of the Coordinating Council of the Belarusian Opposition, Pavel Latushko also said that there were six people, including four Russian citizens, on board the flight who did not make the onward journey from Minsk to Vilnius. Protasevich and Sapieha being the other two individuals.