Reacting to the news that the Belarusian authorities apprehended Raman Pratasevich, former editor-in-chief of the popular opposition Telegram channel NEXTA, after an emergency landing in Minsk of the airplane he took, Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Director, said:
“The situation here is simple. There is little doubt that the Belarusian authorities used a false bomb threat and a MiG fighter jet to force an airplane flying from one country of the European Union to another to land with the apparent sole purpose of detaining an exiled critical journalist whom they badly wanted silenced.
“While it sounds like an extraordinary Hollywood plot, it’s not. The reality of this apparent act of air piracy is chilling. The European Union and the rest of the world must react without delay and call for the immediate release of Raman Pratasevich. He should be allowed to leave Belarus and travel to the country of his choice.”
On 23 May, Raman Pratasevich, 26, who until September 2020 led the biggest Belarusian opposition Telegram channels NEXTA and NEXTA Live, was detained at Minsk airport after his Lithuania-bound flight made an emergency landing over a purported bomb threat which was promptly reported as false. A MiG-29 fighter jet belonging to the Belarusian Air Forces escorted the civilian plane to the alternate airfield in Minsk.
Last year, NEXTA and its sister channels were declared “extremist” and subsequently banned in Belarus by the country’s security services, as part of the authorities’ brutal crackdown on peaceful dissent in the country after the widely-disputed results of the 9 August presidential elections. Raman Pratasevich and his associate Stsyapan Putsila were arbitrarily added to Belarus’s list of “individuals involved in terrorist activity.” The two were also charged with “incitement of mass riots”, “gross violation of public order” and “incitement od social hatred” against public officials and law enforcement agents. These crimes carry penalties of up to 15 years in prison.