UN demands immediate release of Belarusian journalist and girlfriend after forced aircraft landing

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has demanded the immediate release Tuesday of Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega after their passenger flight was forced to land in Minsk Sunday.

Ryanair flight FR4978, carrying Protasevich and Sapega, was forced to divert to Minsk shortly before it crossed into Lithuanian airspace en route to Vilnius from Greece. Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko claimed to have received information about the Ryanair flight “possibly [having] explosives on board” and therefore ordered a fighter jet to escort the aircraft to Minsk.

Protasevich, a native of Belarus, is known for his role in supporting the Belarusian oppositional movement. He is a founder of NEXTA, an internet broadcasting channel that “played a prominent role in the organization of protests against Lukashenko throughout the second half of last year,” around the time of the country’s disputed presidential elections. Protasevich has been living in Lithuania in the recent past, as he faces charges in Belarus of “inciting public disorder and social hatred,” convictions that carry a prison sentence of up to 12 years. He also faces a potential charge of terrorism and could receive the death penalty if convicted.

Global response to the grounding of the Ryanair flight is mounting. Prosecutors in Poland and Lithuania on Monday opened criminal investigations into the forced landing of Ryanair passenger aircraft FR4978. Polish Prosecutor General Zbigniew Ziobro on Monday ordered an investigation into the incident, citing two articles in the Polish criminal code: “[one] concerns the use of deception or threat of direct violence to take control of an aircraft, which in this case was officially registered in Poland, giving a legal basis for the investigation as the plane is considered Polish territory. The other concerns the unlawful deprivation of freedom of the passengers of Ryanair flight 4978.” Prosecutors in Lithuania began their criminal investigation on Sunday, where potential charges include “hijacking a plane for terrorism purposes and other violations of international law.” When Ryanair FR4897 landed in Vilnius on Sunday after the diversion to Minsk, passengers were asked to provide evidence of the incident at the airport.

EU leaders have since prohibited any EU aircraft from traveling through Belarusian airspace or using Belarusian airports. The EU has also determined that further sanctions against the country are required. UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that he is “deeply concerned” about the grounding of the Ryanair passenger jet and called for a “full, transparent and independent investigation into this disturbing incident.” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the Ryanair grounding and also called for a full investigation. Additionally, in a press briefing on the matter, OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville said:

The manner, through threat of military force, in which Protasevich was abducted from the jurisdiction of another State and brought within that of Belarus was tantamount to an extraordinary rendition. Such abuse of State power against a journalist for exercising functions that are protected under international law is receiving, and deserves, the strongest condemnation … [t]his astonishing episode constitutes a new phase in the Belarusian authorities campaign of repression against journalists and civil society in general. This arbitrary arrest is a sign of an extremely worrying escalation in the crackdown of dissenting voices, not just of journalists but also of Belarusian human rights defenders and other civil society actors, including those living abroad.

Supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin have expressed their approval of the arrests.