Ryanair flight 4978 was about to begin its descent to Vilnius in Lithuania on Sunday when it suddenly changed direction after a “security alert,” turning sharply east and descending towards the capital of Belarus, Minsk.
Whether that security alert was a fabrication by the Belarus authorities is now at the heart of an incident which has sparked widespread international condemnation and raised serious questions about safety in the skies. Some governments have described the incident as a state-sanctioned hijacking.
One of the passengers on board the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was Belarus opposition activist Roman Pratasevich, who is wanted on a variety of charges. For him the diversion was much more than an inconvenience. As soon as the plane landed, he was arrested, according to the Belarus Interior Ministry.
The President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, has been fending off opposition protests since claiming victory last year after a hotly-disputed election widely condemned by the international community.
Pratasevich is one of dozens of journalists and activists campaigning in exile against Lukashenko’s 26-year rule. He is the founder of the Telegram channel Nexta, which helped mobilize anti-Lukashenko protests, and was charged last year with “organizing mass riots and group actions that grossly violate public order.” He is on a government wanted list for terrorism