Maltese MEPs outraged at mid-flight ‘kidnapping’ of critical Belarusian journalist

MEPs accuse Belarus of hijacking and state terrorism by forcing a Ryanair flight into an emergency landing in Minsk after a fictitious bomb threat, arresting a journalist critical of authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko

File photo
File photo

Updated at 12:55pm with PN statement

Maltese Nationalist MEPs Roberta Metsola and David Casa have joined the growing chorus of outrage over the ‘kidnapping’ of a renowned Belarusian journalist aboard a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius.

MEPs have accused Belarus of hijacking and state terrorism when it forced a Ryanair flight into an emergency landing in Minsk after an allegedly fictitious bomb threat, arresting a journalist critical of authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko.

Roman Protasevich was taken off the flight and detained in Minsk before the plane was allowed to resume its flight.  Protasevich is wanted by the Belarusian regime for organising last year’s protests against strongman Alexander Lukashenko

Belarus media said a MiG-29 escorted the jet to Minsk because of a bomb scare, but no explosives were found. The plane finally landed in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, its original destination more than seven hours after its scheduled arrival, without Protasevich aboard.

On Twitter, MEP Roberta Metsola called for immediate action: “Lukashenka is testing the resolve of the EU & the International Community. He's gambling that we won't walk the talk. We must prove him wrong.

“This shocking hijacking must be the last line he crosses. Europe must stand up. For Roman Protasevich, for #Belarus, for us all #EUCO [European Commission].”

Metsola called on the Commission to take action today, saying, “The #EUCO tomorrow [Monday] must deliver. Europe must act as one. Unambiguously. The EU must be united in facing down an illegitimate regime responsible for outrageous, illegal, acts. We must stand for Roman Protasevich & any other dissidents who deserve to feel & be safe in our Union.”

The call is likely to be met when the Commission meets, with EC President Ursula von der Leyen having expressed similar shock at the events unfolding on an EU flight over EU airspace: “The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences. Those responsible for the #Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned. Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately.

“EUCO will discuss tomorrow [Monday] action to take.”

Maltese MEP David Casa was of a similar vein, saying, “This is a very serious case. We cannot allow this to happen in our continent. The @Europarl_EN will follow this closely. No journalist should be arrested for doing their job.”

EPP chair Manfred Weber described it as an “unforgivable act of state terrorism”, adding, “Dictator #Lukashenko hijacked a civilian #Ryanair airplane travelling between two EU Member States & NATO allies. We must react immediately and firmly. Additional sanctions should be considered at #EUCO.”

European Parliament President David Sassoli, meanwhile, also called for immediate explanations, and for Protasevich’s immediate release.

The Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania had been diverted to Minsk, Belarus for several hours on Sunday just before it had reached the Belarusian border.

Arriving passengers told media outlets that they had been given no information about the reason for the diversion to Minsk.

Monika Simkiene told AFP news agency: “He just turned to people and said he was facing the death penalty.”

There have already been calls for the EU and NATO to intervene.

Malta’s Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo said the situation was “unacceptable and unprecedented.” 

“To force a landing of a commercial flight between two European cities, and jeopardise the safety of passengers in such way. The safety of all passengers and crew must be ensured,” Bartolo said. 

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab warned the “outlandish action” would have “serious implications”.

Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was beaten by Alexander Lukashenko in presidential polls last year widely denounced as rigged, was among those demanding Protasevich's release.

In a statement, Ryanair said that the crew had been “notified by Belarus of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk”.

Ryanair said checks in Minsk found “nothing untoward”, and the aircraft left Minsk at 8:50pm.  “We apologise sincerely to all affected passengers for this regrettable delay which was outside Ryanair's control,” the airline said. 

European Council chairman Charles Michel said EU leaders would discuss “this unprecedented incident” on Monday at a Council summit, and it would not “remain without consequences”.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said this was a “serious and dangerous incident”.

PN statement

The Nationalist Party has expressed its concern and condemnation at the latest "grave act against journalist Roman Protasevich".

“This most egregious abuse because it attacks the freedom of expression and must certainly be condemned but also followed by adequate measures to make sure the action is not repeated,” the party said. 

Therefore, the PN reiterated its condemnation and hopes that steps will be taken to bring democracy back to Belarus and end “the present dictatorship.”

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This article is part of a content series called Ewropej. This is a multi-newsroom initiative part-funded by the European Parliament to bring the work of the EP closer to the citizens of Malta and keep them informed about matters that affect their daily lives. This article reflects only the author’s view. The European Parliament is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

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