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As countries condemn Belarus flight diversion, critics accuse West of similar tactics

A Ryanair plane approaches Vilnius International Airport in Lithuania on Sunday. (EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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A previous version of this article misstated the duration of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s rule. He has been in power for 27 years, not 17. The article has been corrected.

In an elaborate ploy, a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius on Sunday was forced to land in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, over a bomb scare that Belarusian authorities appear to have engineered.

It soon became clear the real target of the operation was Roman Protasevich — a journalist and critic of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko — whom police arrested on the tarmac.

Belarus faces anger and isolation after forcing a Ryanair plane to land and arresting a dissident

Foreign officials expressed fury over the incident — which was unusual, but not entirely unprecedented, as some allies of Belarus and critics of the West were quick to point out.

“The United States strongly condemns the forced diversion of a flight between two EU member states and the subsequent removal and arrest of journalist Raman Pratasevich in Minsk,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement, as European leaders mulled a harsh response.

Russia, on the other hand, accused the United States of applying a double standard.

“It is shocking that the West calls the incident in Belarusian airspace ‘shocking,’ ” Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, wrote on Facebook on Monday, pointing to instances of U.S. intervention in international travel.

The examples she and others cited did not involve bomb scares or crackdowns on the political opposition.

2013: Bolivian president’s plane forced to land in Austria in hunt for Snowden

In July 2013, under the Obama administration, Bolivian President Evo Morales was forced to land in Austria, amid U.S. pressure, in a hunt for U.S. fugitive Edward Snowden, who was thought to be aboard.

The United States “should not be shocked by similar behavior by others,” Zakharova wrote.

But unlike the Belarusian plot, which involved fighter jets and bomb threats, the Bolivian flight was brought down by bureaucracy: European nations refused it permission to enter their airspace, Bolivian officials later told reporters, leaving them with no clear route back home after a trip to Moscow.

The plane subsequently landed in Austria because it needed to refuel, and Heinz Fischer, Austria’s president at the time, met with Morales at the airport.

Russia is one of Belarus’s few remaining international allies, with President Vladimir Putin helping to support Lukashenko as he faced protests against his 27-year rule last summer.

Another incident involving the United States took place in October 1985, when four U.S. Navy F14s intercepted a chartered EgyptAir flight traveling from Egypt to Tunisia. It had aboard four members of the Palestine Liberation Front, which had been involved in a cruise ship hijacking that left an American citizen dead.

The plane was forced to land at the joint U.S.-Italian Sigonella Naval Air Base in Sicily, where a standoff between Navy SEALs and Italian military police ensued.

The United States eventually ceded control of the situation to the Italians, and the hijackers were later found guilty in an Italian court and served various prison sentences.

A brazen display of autocratic power in Europe is a new test for Biden

Other countries have taken somewhat similar steps. In February 2010, Iranian fighter jets intercepted a plane owned by Kyrgyz company Istok-Avia traveling from Dubai to Bishkek and forced it to land at Iran’s Bandar Abbas airport, where authorities took two passengers off the plane.

Iranian media outlets later announced that Abdolmalek Rigi, a leader in the Sunni militant movement Jundallah, had been arrested on the flight and showed him being led from the plane by four masked Iranian commandos.

Rigi was executed a few months later for his alleged role in terrorist attacks in Iran. There was widespread speculation about his arrest, with some reports claiming that he was in fact probably detained in Pakistan and handed over to Iranian authorities.

Some analysts see the arrest of the journalist Protasevich as part of a more recent trend — what Freedom House, a nongovernmental, nonpartisan advocacy organization, has dubbed “transnational repression.”

A report released by Freedom House this year found that there had been 608 cases of “direct, physical … transnational repression” since 2014, which the organization defines as including state-sponsored assassinations, abductions and assaults that took place across international borders.

Protasevich, who had been living outside Belarus since 2019, was charged in November with a number of terrorism-related crimes. The charges carry potential prison sentences of more than 12 years.

But many say the journalist’s arrest is another crackdown on dissent by Lukashenko, who has arrested scores of opposition leaders since a disputed election last summer saw months of enormous pro-democracy protests across Belarus.

NEXTA, Protasevich’s organization, which operates on the social messaging platform Telegram, had been key to disseminating images of state violence during protests last year, activists say.

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