Opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich, who is accused of participating in an unsanctioned protest at the Kuropaty preserve, arrives for a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus April 10, 2017. Picture taken April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer
First video of detained Belarusian activist released
02:37 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Imagine you’re returning home from a trip aboard a normal, peaceful flight. You’re almost at your destination, but just before the plane crosses the border, the pilot announces without explanation that he’s diverting to an unplanned location. The plane abruptly turns. and suddenly a military fighter jet is escorting your aircraft to an “emergency landing.”

Frida Ghitis

Now imagine the military plane belongs to a country ruled by a dictator, and you’re a journalist and pro-democracy activist in exile who has been critically documenting the dictator’s tyranny.

It sounds like a movie thriller, but it’s the harrowing ordeal described by passengers of the Ryanair Athens-to-Vilnius flight on Sunday. And it did not end well for journalist Roman Protasevich. The plane was forced to land on orders of President Alexander Lukashenko, the long-time dictator of Belarus, whose security forces immediately arrested Protasevich.

This cannot stand.

Recent years have seen so many autocrats brazenly violating once-accepted norms – assassinating government critics on foreign soil, murdering journalists, seizing other country’s territory – that some may lose sight of how unacceptable, how intolerable this behavior is.

After Russia’s theft of Crimea, Saudi Arabia’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and most recently – just hours after Protasevich’s arrest – the detention Monday in Myanmar of American journalist Danny Fenster, these affronts to the global community and to international security may seem nearly routine.

That is precisely why they must be stopped. Lukashenko’s latest stunt shamelessly violates every rule of civil aviation, every norm of civilized behavior. The international community needs to impose hard-hitting sanctions.

Other authoritarian rulers are watching closely. Failure to act forcefully will not only tempt them to stretch their crackdowns beyond their borders, anticipating only mild consequences, but it will make travel much more dangerous for everyone. It will particularly endanger journalists who make dictators uncomfortable, and put their lives at risk no matter where they are or where they go.

The dictator Lukashenko personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to scramble toward the passenger jet, according to his office. Belarussian authorities deceptively claim they had reports of a bomb, and say they informed the pilot who, according to Belarussian Major-General Andrey Gurtsevich, was the one who made the decision to fly to Minsk, the Belarussian capital. The fighter jet, Gurtsevich said, was there to “assist.”

That’s not what the Ryanair crew says. According to a statement from the airline, Belarus informed the crew of a “potential security threat,” and they were “instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.” In fact, a look at the flight map undercuts the Belarussian military claims. With the plane closer to Vilnius than to Minsk, it is obvious that it would have made more sense to complete the flight to Vilnius than to take the longer route into Lukashenko’s country.

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said that among the 171 passengers on the flight, he believed there were several members of the Belarussian KGB. O’Leary accused Belarus of “state-sponsored piracy.” In Ireland, the home base of Ryanair, government officials also alluded to secret service agents. Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the agents were “clearly linked to the Belarussian regime.” About half a dozen passengers didn’t board the plane for Vilnius when it finally resumed its flight several hours after the incident, he said.

It’s early, but all signs point to an outlaw operation by an outlaw regime.

Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, is where many leaders of the pro-democracy opposition to Lukashenko are now based, having fled his brutal crackdown after last year’s all-but-certainly stolen elections.

Lukashenko, one of the world’s longest-ruling dictators, has been in power for 26 years. Like other tyrants, he likes to pretend he rules legitimately, so he held elections last fall. Big mistake. Belarussians turned out en masse to support the opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. She had become the candidate after Lukashenko imprisoned her husband, the original opposition candidate. Lukashenko had already removed other potential opposition candidates.

When Lukashenko claimed he had won the election, a claim rejected by credible observers, massive protests, led by three charismatic women, filled the streets. A throwback to Soviet days, Lukashenko came as close as ever to losing power. He received support from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who undoubtedly feared that success by pro-democracy forces in neighboring Belarus could embolden the already-restive opposition to his decades’-long rule in Russia.

As the crackdown worsened, opposition leaders fled for their lives. Lithuania offered support. Protasevich, who had started a channel over the Telegram app that helped pro-democracy protest organizers, was put by the regime on a terrorism list and charged with inciting public disorder.

According to passengers on the RyanAir flight, as soon as the pilot announced the plane was headed to the Belarusian capital, a visibly anxious Protasevich reached for his overhead luggage, pulled out his laptop and handed it to his girlfriend. He was forcibly arrested on the tarmac by security forces. His girlfriend was also detained.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken condemned the forced diversion of the aircraft as a “shocking act,” calling for the immediate release of Protasevich.

Other international condemnation was swift. European Commission President Ursula von de Leyen called the incident an “unacceptable hijacking” and, “outrageous and illegal behavior.” Former European Council president Donald Tusk tweeted that “Lukashenko has become a threat not only to the citizens of his country, but also to international security. His act of state terrorism requires an immediate and decisive response from all European governments and institutions.”

Indeed, reaction around the world has brought the expected incensed diplomatic language, but what matters is the tangible consequences.

Several airlines have announced they are avoiding Belarus air space. The United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority has suspended permits for Belarussian carriers. And the UK Transport secretary has told airlines to avoid flying over Belarus “to keep passengers safe.”

The chairs of foreign affairs committees in the legislatures of the United States, the UK, Ireland, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Czechia, called on Belarus to be expelled from the International Civil Aviation Organization, and for all flights to, from and over Belarus to be suspended. Following the calls for action and for an investigation, the ICAO, a UN agency, scheduled a meeting for Thursday.

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    Late Monday, European Union leaders agreed to bar EU airlines from flying over Belarus, an extraordinarily fast move by a body known for plodding slowly because of the requirement that it reach consensus among its 27 members. That makes this even more significant.

    The moves could – and should – be only the beginning of meaningful sanctions to punish Lukashenko and signal to other tyrants who might find inspiration in his behavior that the penalties will be severe for this most outrageous affront against every norm of international coexistence.