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Leading Belarusian activist detained after plane diverted mid-flight

Raman Pratasevich, a leading Belarusian opposition activist-in-exile has been arrested in Belarus after his Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk.

The Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs confirms that the founder of the Telegram channel Nexta, which was broadly used to organise and report on anti-government protests following last year’s presidential election. Incumbent president Aleksandr Lukashenko won a 6th consecutive term in office, but the election result is widely believed to have been falsified.

Pratasevich had been placed on a government-list of people wanted for terrorism, and is according to opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya under the threat of receiving the death penalty. Pratasevich was returning to Lithuania after having travelled to Athens with Tsikhanouskaya for her recent meeting with the President of Greece.

The portal specifies that under the criminal cases initiated against Pratasevich so far, he does not face the death penalty. According to the source, Pratasevich has been charged with actions aimed at inciting hatred, organisation of riots and organising actions that seriously threaten public order.

It is not yet clear how it happened that the plane was forced to land in Minsk. Some sources report that it happened due to a violent altercation between passengers on board, while the Belarusian Presidency press service claimed on Telegram that a MiG-29 fighter jet had been sent by the military to intercept the aircraft following a reported bomb threat.

Ms Tsikhanouskaya’s Telegram channel commented “it is absolutely obvious that this is a special services operation.

According to her, “the regime put the passengers of the plane and the entire civil aviation at risk to crack down on a man who was the editor of the largest independent Telegram channel in Belarus.

Lithuanian president Gitanas Nausėda also stated that “the plane was made to land by force”. He also called the situation “an unprecedented event” and demanded that the Belarusian authorities free Mr Pratasevich immediately and allow the remaining 122 passengers to continue their flight to Vilnius.

Belarus has seen unrest and large-scale street protests since the presidential election on August 9th 2020, which the incumbent president officially won with 80% of the vote.

The election result was not recognised by the European Union, which accused President Lukashenko of electoral fraud. It has since imposed sanctions on Belarusian officials deemed to be responsible for violence, repression and election fraud.

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