Home » Belarus plane: What we know and what we don’t

Belarus plane: What we know and what we don’t

International anger has grown over the detention of an opposition Belarusian journalist, after the Ryanair plane he was travelling on was forced to land.

Here’s what we know so far about the arrest of Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend.
Why did the plane land in Belarus?

Ryanair flight FR4978 was travelling from the Greek capital, Athens, to Vilnius in Lithuania on Sunday afternoon.

Passengers said the journey had been calm and the plane had begun its gradual descent to Vilnius when it made an abrupt change of course.

What happens with a military jet interception?
Fliers describe panic on diverted Ryanair plane

According to a transcript released by the Belarusian transport ministry, air traffic controllers told the pilot at 09:30 GMT “you have bomb on board and it can be activated over Vilnius”. Even though the plane was closer to Vilnius than the Belarus capital, the pilot was told to divert to Minsk. At 09:47 the pilot declared a emergency.

An earlier transcript broadcast by Belarus TV had made it look as though the crew had asked to land in Minsk.

The plane then landed at 10:16 GMT (13:16 local time). A military MiG jet escorted the plane to the airport.
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Leading opposition figure Pavel Latushko alleged Belarus had threatened to shoot down the plane. Exiled Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said on Monday that she had been on the same flight a week earlier.

When the plane’s 126 passengers disembarked, police arrested Mr Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.

Belarus later claimed the flight had been diverted because of a bomb threat from Hamas, but the Palestinian militant group denied any involvement.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the Belarusian claim as “completely implausible”.
What do we know about Protasevich and his girlfriend?

Mr Protasevich is a former editor of Nexta, a dissident media operation with a popular Telegram messenger channel. He left Belarus in 2019 to live in exile in Lithuania. Nexta became a significant channel for protesters challenging the August 2020 presidential election in Belarus, widely condemned as rigged.

Belarus plane: Who is dissident Roman Protasevich?

After the Ryanair plane landed on Sunday, witnesses said Mr Protasevich was “super-scared”. Nexta’s editor tweeted that according to the journalist’s mother, Roman Protasevich was suffering from heart disease.
media captionRoman Protasevich’s father tells the BBC he is fearful his son may be tortured

But in a video clip released on Monday, Mr Protasevich said he was in good health and appeared to confess to crimes he had been charged with by the Belarusian state.

Activists, including the country’s main opposition leader, said they believed Mr Protasevich had spoken under duress. Mr Protasevich’s father has told the BBC he fears his son may be tortured.

According to Sofia Sapega’s mother, the couple were returning from a holiday in Greece and the 23-year-old has been taken to a Minsk jail.

The last word she managed to write on her WhatsApp messaging account was “Mummy”.
Sofia Sapegaimage copyrightReuters

Russia’s foreign ministry said it had been told that Sofia Sapega was being detained for 72 hours on suspicion of crimes committed in August-September 2020, and Belarus would then decide “whether a measure of restraint will need to be approved”.

Her father later told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency that her detention had been extended for two months.

Ms Sapega is studying law at the European Humanities University in Vilnius. She has been preparing for her final exams.

Although Russian-born, she has spent most of her life in Belarus, a fellow student said. He added that she was not an opposition activist.

Her university has protested over the Belarusian authorities’ actions.

Ms Sapega’s mother Anna Dudich told BBC Russian that Sofia had not been working for opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Lithuania.

“She got to know Roman only about a year and a half ago,” her mother said.
Who else did not return to the plane?

Other than Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, it is thought that at least three other passengers remained in Belarus.

Belarus TV rejected as “sick fantasies and fiction” reports that several intelligence agents were on the plane. Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary suggested KGB agents may have been on board, a point backed up by Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney.
Belarusian security officials with with a sniffer dog checking the luggage of passengers in front of the diverted Ryanair flight at Minsk airport. Photo: 23 May 2021image copyrightHO via EPA
image captionFurther details have emerged of the passengers who did not get back on board in Minsk

But Greek media have listed three names of passengers said to have remained in Minsk, and they have been reported by Belarus state TV too. Iason Zisis, said to be a doctoral researcher at Eindhoven University, told Belarus 1TV he was visiting his wife in Minsk so it made sense to disembark. Belarus TV named another passenger, Alexandra Stabredova, who said she asked to stay in Minsk. Sergei Kulakov said his final destination was the city of Vitebsk in northern Belarus.

Russia says Ms Sapega was the only Russian to remain in Minsk.
What penalty does Protasevich face?

The journalist faces charges of organising mass unrest after covering the events of the 2020 presidential election from abroad. The offence carries a possible jail term of up to 15 years. However, Mr Protasevich tweeted a KGB list of terrorism suspects last year, adding that he had been placed on it alongside Islamic State jihadists.

When the plane landed in Minsk, Mr Protasevich reportedly told a fellow passenger: “A death penalty awaits me here.” According to some reports, terrorism offences carry the death penalty in Belarus.

Belarus is the only country in Europe and the former Soviet Union that still passes and carries out death sentences. Although no prisoners were executed last year, two were executed in 2019, according to Amnesty International.

Journalists have been arrested and independent media targeted in recent months. On Tuesday, Belarus sentenced seven activists – including senior opposition figure Pavel Severinets – to between four and seven years for their part in last year’s protests.

Another political activist jailed over the unrest, 50-year-old Vitold Ashurok, died of cardiac arrest at a penal colony in the east of the country last week.

Earlier this year, media freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged the UN to investigate the “persecution of journalists” in its investigation into the Belarusian government’s post-election crackdown, after two reporters said they were tortured in detention.
What has Ryanair said?

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In its initial statement after Flight FR4978 arrived in Lithuania following a seven-hour delay on the ground in Minsk, the airline said the plane had been cleared for take-off together with passengers and crew. No mention was made of the arrested Belarusian journalist or his girlfriend. That statement was changed the next day to condemn an act of “aviation piracy”.

Europe airlines redirect flights away from Belarus
What action has the EU taken against Belarus?

Ryanair’s chief executive told Irish radio on Monday that it was very frightening for both crew and passengers.

The airline was not alone in failing to point out that two passengers had been forced off the plane. EU Transport Commissioner Adina Valean went on social media to hail “great news for everyone”, although she later appealed for Protasevich’s release.
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How Belarus has blurred lines over arrest

Alistair Coleman, BBC Monitoring Disinformation Specialist

Belarusian authorities have muddied the waters over the detention of Mr Protasevich, both over his background and how the Ryanair flight was forced to land.

Aside from a new air traffic control transcript that contradicts the version of events given by Belarusian state TV, the pro-Lukashenko press has portrayed the dissident journalist as an extremist with right-wing sympathies.

Belarus Segodnya, a newspaper published by the presidential administration, has claimed that Protasevich was a mercenary who fought in eastern Ukraine with a unit called the Azov Battalion that’s been accused of neo-Nazi links.

Mr Protasevich confirmed in an interview last year that he had spent a year in the Donbas region, but said he was covering the conflict as a journalist and photographer.
Digitally altered photograph on the front cover of an Azov Battalion magazineimage copyrightBlack Sun

A photograph on the front cover of an Azov Battalion magazine from July 2015, which shows an armed man in army fatigues who bears a resemblance to Mr Protasevich, has been shared by his critics as “evidence” that he was there in a military capacity. But neither the image nor the claim of his involvement with the Azov regiment have been independently verified.

Zaraki Kenpachi