The dissident 26-year-old, who had been living in exile, began his work in digital activism as a teenaged student.
European countries, the United States and the United Nations have condemned Belarus after authorities there forced a passenger plane carrying a wanted journalist to divert and land in its capital.
In what was described by some European Union leaders as a “hijacking”, the Ryanair passenger plane flying from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday was suddenly diverted to Minsk and escorted there by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet.
After landing, authorities took journalist Roman Protasevich into custody.
Protasevich is accused of “extremism” in Belarus, of organising riots and inciting hatred – charges relating to his involvement in mass anti-government rallies and which could see him jailed. He denies the allegations.
He used the messaging app Telegram to broadcast footage of the protests as Belarus cracked down on media organisations.
Sunday’s incident comes as the EU is set to discuss toughening its existing sanctions against Belarus, imposed over President Alexander Lukashenko’s crackdown on opposition protesters, at a preplanned summit on Monday.
Authorities in Belarus have insisted they acted legally.
“There is no doubt that the actions of our competent authorities … fully met established international rules,” foreign ministry spokesman Anatoly Glaz said in a statement on Monday, accusing the West of “politicising” the situation.
“Unfounded accusations are being made,” he said.
Russia, Belarus’s main ally, dismissed the West’s furious response as hypocritical.
It claimed the reason behind the move was a false bomb threat that was written in the name of the Palestinian movement Hamas that rules the Gaza Strip.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum denied his group had any knowledge or connection.
Here is a roundup of global reaction:
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said “the outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences”.
“Those responsible for the #Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned.”
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 action to take.
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) May 23, 2021
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda described Belarus’s actions as “abhorrent” and called for Protasevich’s immediate release.
Prosecutors also said they had opened a criminal investigation into the hijacking of a plane.
🇪🇺 leaders will discuss a state-sponsored terror act in #Minsk tomorrow at #EUCO. My suggestions: airspace over 🇧🇾 shall be recognized unsafe, 🇧🇾 aircrafts shall not be accepted in 🇪🇺 airports, immediate investigation by @icao & serious sanctions against the regime.
— Gitanas Nausėda (@GitanasNauseda) May 23, 2021
Unprecedented event! A civilian passenger plane flying to Vilnius was forcibly landed in #Minsk. Belarusian political activist & founder of @NEXTA_EN was on the plane. He is arrested. 🇧🇾 regime is behind the abhorrent action. I demand to free Roman Protasevič urgently!
— Gitanas Nausėda (@GitanasNauseda) May 23, 2021
International Civil Aviation Organization
The United Nation’s civil aviation agency said the forced landing “could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention”, a treaty that protects nations’ airspace sovereignty.
ICAO is strongly concerned by the apparent forced landing of a Ryanair flight and its passengers, which could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention. We look forward to more information being officially confirmed by the countries and operators concerned.
— ICAO (@icao) May 23, 2021
The US “strongly condemned” the arrest of Protasevich, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling for the journalist’s release.
“This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including US citizens,” he said in a statement, using an alternative spelling of the Belarusian leader’s name.
He added on Twitter: “We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps.”
We strongly condemn the Lukashenka regime's brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist. We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps. The United States stands with the people of Belarus.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) May 23, 2021
The UK called for Protasevich to be released after he was arrested on “the basis of a ruse”, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said, adding London was working with allies on more sanctions against Belarus.
“The UK condemns yesterday’s actions by the Belarusian authorities, who arrested journalist Roman Protasevich on the basis of a ruse, having forced his flight to land in Minsk. Mr (President Alexander) Lukashenko must be held to account for his outlandish actions,” Raab said in a statement.
“The UK calls for the immediate release of Mr Protasevich and other political prisoners held in Belarus. The UK is working with our allies on a coordinated response, including further sanctions. The UK also calls for the ICAO Council to meet urgently to consider the regime’s flouting of the international rules safeguarding civil aviation.”
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Belarusian opposition leader
Belarusian opposition leader in exile Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said on Monday she feared for the life of journalist Roman Protasevich.
She said Protasevich was a high-profile opponent of Lukashenko.
“We are really afraid not only for his freedom, but for his life,” she told Sky News.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the prime minister of Greece, said the forced landing of a “commercial plane to detain a journalist is an unprecedented, shocking act”.
The EU “must address the need to step up pressure on Belarus,” he said, adding: “Enough is enough.”
The forced landing of a commercial plane to detain a journalist is an unprecedented, shocking act. We demand all passengers’ immediate release. Tomorrow’s #EUCO must address the need to step up pressure on Belarus. Enough is enough.
— Prime Minister GR (@PrimeministerGR) May 23, 2021
The government in Ireland, where Ryanair has its headquarters, described the incident as “absolutely unacceptable”.
Micheal Martin, the Irish prime minister, called on the EU to address “these unprecedented actions” at Monday’s meeting.
The forced landing of a passenger plane in Belarus today to detain a journalist is absolutely unacceptable.
These unprecedented actions have caused widespread concern across the EU – and they must be addressed at tomorrow’s #EUCO
— Micheál Martin (@MichealMartinTD) May 23, 2021
Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki denounced Belarus’s actions as “an act of state terrorism” and called for sanctions against Lukashenko’s government.
I condemn in the strongest terms the detention of Roman Protasevich by Belarussian authorities, after a Ryanair passenger aircraft was hijacked. This is a reprehensible act of state terrorism.
— Mateusz Morawiecki (@MorawieckiM) May 23, 2021
I have asked @eucopresident to expand tomorrow's #EUCO agenda and discuss immediate sanctions against A. Lukashenka regime. Hijacking of a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism. It cannot go unpunished.
— Mateusz Morawiecki (@MorawieckiM) May 23, 2021
Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, called for a “firm and united response” from European nations.
Le détournement par les autorités biélorusses d’un vol de @Ryanair est inacceptable. Une réponse ferme et unie des Européens est indispensable. Tous les passagers de ce vol, dont les opposants biélorusses éventuels, doivent être autorisés sans délai à quitter la #Biélorussie.
— Jean-Yves Le Drian (@JY_LeDrian) May 23, 2021
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he is also closely monitoring the “forcible landing” and detention of “opposition figure Roman Protasevich.”
“This is a serious & dangerous incident which requires international investigation. Belarus must ensure safe return of crew & all passengers,” he wrote on Twitter.
Closely monitoring forcible landing in #Belarus of flight to Vilnius & reported detention of opposition figure Roman Protasevich. This is a serious & dangerous incident which requires international investigation. Belarus must ensure safe return of crew & all passengers.
— Jens Stoltenberg (@jensstoltenberg) May 23, 2021
Russia, Belarus’s main ally, accused the West of hypocrisy in its outraged response.
“It is shocking that the West calls the incident in Belarusian airspace ‘shocking’,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook.
“Either (they) should be shocked by … the forced (landing) in Austria of the Bolivian president’s plane at the request of the United States … Or (they) should not be shocked by similar behaviour by others.”
The Italian foreign ministry summoned the Belarusian ambassador to protest the “kidnapping”, calling it an “unacceptable act, which constitutes a very serious violation of international aviation safety regulations and for which Belarus will be called to account”.
Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Benedetto Della Vedova told the ambassador that Protasevich and his partner should be freed immediately.
“Italy will continue to spare no effort to obtain the immediate release of all political prisoners,” the statement said.
It added that Italy was in discussion with its EU partners on introducing measures against Belarus “proportionate to the gravity of the incident”.
Czech leaders strongly denounced the Belarusian government’s action.
In a statement to reporters in Prague, Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek called it “a flagrant violation of international law”.
Prime Minister Andrej Babis called the incident “scandalous” and said it showed “signs of state terrorism”.