As Roman Protasevich’s Ryanair flight began descending towards Minsk, the 26-year-old Belarusian opposition blogger grew frantic, giving his phone and laptop to his girlfriend and pleading with a flight attendant to stop the plane from landing.
“Don’t do this, they will kill me, I am a refugee,” a fellow passenger described him as saying. “We must, we have no choice,” the attendant reportedly replied.
Soon, a visibly trembling Protasevich, who had spent much of last summer managing Telegram channels broadcasting mass protests against the Belarus leader, Alexander Lukashenko, was led away as the plane stood on the tarmac. “I’m facing the death penalty here,” he said. His girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, was also detained.
Before boarding the flight from Greece to Lithuania, where the blogger lives in exile, Protasevich had told friends he was being shadowed at Athens airport by a bald man with a leather suitcase speaking Russian.
“Lol, it seems that the [security services] were following me at the airport,” he texted one friend in Russian. “And even tried to photograph my documents. It’s not certain. But in any case that’s some suspicious shit.”
At that stage there was little suggestion of the extraordinary and historic events that were about to take place. In behaviour that bore the hallmarks of a pariah state, Belarusian authorities forced Protasevich’s plane to divert by calling in a bomb threat then scrambled a MiG-29 to escort it down to Minsk airport. Continue