Roman Protasevich is 26 years old. In Belarus he was known as an administrator for the opposition informational Telegram channels. Most Europeans may not understand why you would read news in a messenger app. For that there is television, newspapers, and radio. But this is because Europeans do not know what a total Internet shutdown during elections is. Europeans do not know what it is like to live in a country where there is no independent television and radio, and where it is prohibited to sell newspapers at newsstands or receive them by mail.
Young men like Roman Protasevich and Stepan Putilo found a way to bypass classical methods of censorship. The Telegram messenger was almost impossible to block with the filtering equipment that Lukhashenko installed to control the Internet.
It became clear on August 9, 2020, that Alexander Lukashenko’s 27-year rule of Belarus might suddenly end. He lost the presidential election to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in a landslide, and to prevent the spread of this information, he turned the Internet off. People heard the news anyway on the Telegram channels that were streamed by NEXTA, and edited by Roman Protasevich. They took to the streets to protest the falsifications. As such, Roman Protasevich became Alexander Lukashenko’s personal enemy. In order to deal with him, the dictator decided on what most world leaders have described as “an act of state terrorism.” The pilots of a RyanAir flight carrying Protasevich from Greece to Lithuania were informed of an alleged bomb placed on board by the Palestinian Hamas organization, and a MIG 29 fighter jet intercepted the airliner. Lukashenko was not deterred by the fact that the flight between Athens and Vilnius was an internal, EU flight. He was not deterred by the fact that hijacking an aircraft was a flagrant violation of international law. He was also not deterred by the fact that, with his bomb threat, he endangered the lives of 133 EU passengers and crew members. He wanted revenge. He wanted to take down a 26-year-old youth who was born when Lukashenko had been president for a year. Moreover, he wanted to exact revenge in a deeply personal way. As such, he also arrested Sofia Sapego, Roman Protasevich’s Russian girlfriend.
In response, the European Union and Ukraine condemned the act of air piracy, closed their airspace to Belarusian air carriers, and recommended that their own airlines not fly over Belarus.
Europe made a discovery: Belarus is not merely an authoritarian regime, but also a terrorist and criminal state. This has not been news for Belarusians for a long time. Declaring a new attitude toward the rule of law at a meeting of the nation’s prosecutors on September 10, 2020, Alexander Lukashenko declared: “Sometimes you don’t need the law!” He declared that in order to justify mass torture in police stations, the passing of unjust sentences, the committing of extrajudicial killings of opposition figures, and the closure of the media.
Political prisoners in Belarusian prisons are marked in a special way – with yellow stripes, as Jews were marked during the Holocaust, and they face horrific treatment. Only recently did we learn of the sudden death of activist Vitold Oshurka in a punishment cell of the Shklov colony. On Wednesday, an 18-year-old teenager named Dmitry Stakhovsky threw himself out of a 16th floor window, protesting against intimidation by the Investigative Committee of Belarus, which had accused him of participating in protests. Roman Protasevich has been shown in a video where he allegedly confesses to all possible crimes, but experts noticed numerous abrasions and bruises on his face and neck were covered with thick makeup.
Under new laws in Belarus threatening huge criminal terms, any and all demonstrations and strikes, and any broadcast or stream from a protest demonstration are now strictly prohibited. Any organization may be declared “extremist.” Government agencies no longer require a court order to close any media outlet or websites, and to turn off the Internet and general communication lines. Worst of all is that they may now employ military weapons and special equipment against peaceful civilians without restrictions or liability.
North Korea. A concentration camp. But in the center of Europe. On the border of the European Union. With a mentally unstable autocrat in charge. With nine million European hostages in his hands, who feel exactly the same as the passengers on that airpliner did when they saw an armed fighter through the windows, ready to destroy them if their pilot refused to obey…
If Europe does not stand up for these hostages, does not impose the toughest sanctions against Lukashenko and his sponsors, does not bring criminal prosecution under international law, and does not provide maximum assistance to civil society in Belarus, then anyone anywhere in the world may become a passenger on an Athens-Vilnius flight.