WARSAW — Since his teenage years as a rebellious high school student in Belarus and continuing into his 20s while in exile abroad, Roman Protasevich faced so many threats from the country’s security apparatus — of violent beatings, jail, punishment against family members — that “we all sort of got used to them,” a fellow exiled dissident recalled.
So, despite his being branded a terrorist by Belarus late last year — a capital offense — Mr. Protasevich was not particularly worried when he set off for Greece from Lithuania, where he had been living, earlier this month to attend a conference and take a short vacation with his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.
But that sense of security was shattered on Sunday when they were snatched by Belarus security officials on the tarmac at Minsk National Airport after a MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to intercept his commercial flight home to Lithuania from Greece. Mr. Protasevich, 26, now faces the vengeance of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the 66-year-old Belarusian leader from whom he once received a scholarship for gifted students but has since defied with unflinching zeal.
In a short video released on Monday by the authorities in Belarus, Mr. Protasevich confessed — under duress, his friends say — to taking part in the organization of “mass unrest” last year in Minsk, the Belarus capital. That is the government’s term for weeks of huge street protests after Mr. Lukashenko, in power since 1994, declared a landslide re-election victory in an August election widely dismissed as brazenly rigged.
Nexta, the opposition news organization where Mr. Protasevich established himself as one of Mr. Lukashenko’s most effective and unbending critics.
“By his character Roman has always been very resolute,” Mr. Putsila said. “He refused to live in fear.”
Since Mr. Lukashenko took power in Belarus in 1994, however, that has been a very perilous proposition.
Mr. Protasevich has been resisting his country’s tyranny since he was 16, when he first witnessed what he described as the “disgusting” brutality of Mr. Lukashenko’s rule. That began a personal journey that would turn a gifted student at a science high school in Minsk into an avowed enemy of a government that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2005 called “the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe.”
video posted on YouTube . “Just as an example: Five huge OMON riot police officers beat women. A mother with her child was thrown into a police van. It was disgusting. After that everything changed fundamentally.”
A letter from the security services to his high school followed. He was expelled and home educated for six months, as no other school would take him, his mother said.
The family eventually negotiated a deal with the Ministry of Education. Mr. Protasevich could attend school, though only an ordinary one, not the elite lyceum he had been enrolled in before, but only if his mother resigned from her teaching job at the army academy.
“Imagine being a 16-year-old and being expelled from school,” Ms. Protasevich said. “It was this incident, this injustice, this insult,” that drove him into the political opposition, she said. “That is how he began his activism as a 16-year-old.”
Mr. Protasevich studied journalism at Belarusian State University but again ran into trouble with the authorities. Unable to finish his degree, he worked as a freelance reporter for a variety of opposition-leaning publications. Frequently detained and jailed for short periods, he decided to move to Poland, working for 10 months in Warsaw with Mr. Putsila and others on the Nexta team disseminating videos, leaked documents and news reports critical of Mr. Lukashenko.
Convinced that his work would have more impact if he were inside Belarus, Mr. Protasevich returned in 2019 to Minsk. But the political climate had only darkened there as Mr. Lukashenko geared up for a presidential election in 2020.
denounced as trumped up drug charges as he was trying to cross the border into Poland.
interview last year. “No one else is left. The opposition leaders are in prison.” Mr. Putsila said that Mr. Protasevich never advocated violence, only peaceful protests.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the principal opposition candidate in the August election who had been forced to flee. With Mr. Lukashenko’s other main rivals in detention, Ms. Tikhanovskaya had become the main voice of the Belarus opposition.
In November, prosecutors in Belarus formally charged Mr. Protasevich under a law that bans the organization of protests that violate “social order.” The security services also put him on a list of accused terrorists.
Nashe Nive, a Belarusian news site.
Mr. Putsila said he was stunned that Mr. Lukashenko would force a commercial airliner to land just to arrest a youthful critic but, with the benefit of hindsight, thinks the operation should not have come as a big surprise. The autocrat, he said, wanted to show that “we will reach you not only in Belarus but wherever you are. He has always tried to terrify.”
A measure of that was that when the plane was forced to land in Minsk on Sunday, Belarus security agents arrested not only Mr. Protasevich but Ms. Sapega, 23. Ms. Sapega, a law student at the European Humanities University in Vilnius, in Lithuania’s capital, appeared to have been arrested over her association. She was not known to be a target in her own right. Her lawyer said Wednesday she would be jailed for at least two months and face a criminal trial.
Mr. Putsila noted that Nexta had received so many threatening letters and abusive phone calls that Polish police officers stand permanent guard on the stairwell leading to the office.
“The Lukashenko regime considers Roman one of its main enemies,” he said. “Maybe it is right.”
Another colleague, Ekaterina Yerusalimskaya, told the Tut.by news service that she and Mr. Protasevich once noticed a mysterious man tailing them in Poland, and reported it to the police. Still, Mr. Protasevich remained nonchalant. “He calmed himself by saying nobody would touch us, otherwise it would be an international scandal,” Ms. Yerusalimskaya said.
Mr. Protasevich’s mother said she worried about his safety but, breaking down in tears as she contemplated her son’s fate after his arrest in Minsk, added: “We believe justice will prevail. We believe all this terror will pass. We believe political prisoners will be freed. And we are very proud of our son.”
Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting from Moscow.
MOSCOW — The tray tables were being raised and the seat backs returned to their upright positions as passengers on Ryanair Flight 4978 prepared for the scheduled landing in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. Then the plane made an abrupt U-turn.
For many passengers, it initially seemed like one of those unexpected delays in airline travel. But after the pilot announced the plane had been diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, one passenger — Roman Protasevich, a prominent Belarusian opposition journalist who had been living in exile since 2019 — grew terrified, certain that he faced arrest.
“He panicked because we were about to land in Minsk,” Marius Rutkauskas, who was sitting one row ahead of Mr. Protasevich, told the Lithuanian broadcaster LRT upon arrival in Vilnius.
Sunday’s ordeal — described by many European officials as an extraordinary, state-sponsored hijacking by Belarus to seize Mr. Protasevich — quickly led to one of the most severe East-West flare-ups in recent years.
report rejecting the idea there were K.G.B. agents on the plane, instead showing three people who said on camera that they had decided to stay in Minsk by their own choosing. They included a Greek man who said he had been traveling to Vilnius on his way to visit his wife in Minsk.
In Lithuania, the police launched an investigation on suspicion of hijacking and kidnapping, and interviewed passengers and crew. They were told that the fighter jet dispatched by Mr. Lukashenko to escort the flight had not forced the Ryanair plane to land, according to people with knowledge of the investigation who were not authorized to speak publicly.
Instead, these people said, the pilot had decided to land the plane in Minsk after Belarusian air traffic control had requested that he do so because of a bomb threat on board.
other confessional videos that critics of Mr. Lukashenko have been forced to record while in jail.
an urgent meeting for Thursday to discuss it.
In recent years, Mr. Lukashenko had profited by playing the interests of Russia and the West off against one another. But amid last summer’s popular uprising against him over his disputed re-election, Mr. Lukashenko threw in his lot with Mr. Putin — and has relied on his support ever since.
Last year, the European Union sanctioned Belarus officials — including Mr. Lukashenko — over human rights abuses, to little apparent effect. The flight bans could have a greater impact, at least on regular people; the summer 2021 timetable of Belavia, Belarus’s national carrier, includes flights to 20 E.U. cities.
And some analysts said the restrictions could require costly rerouting for European airlines, which are already avoiding parts of Ukraine, Belarus’s southern neighbor, because of conflict with Russia.
The flight bans could cause new problems for Mr. Lukashenko inside his country, where the ease of travel to the neighboring European Union had long softened the strictures of living inside an authoritarian state. Ukraine, which is not a member of the E.U., also said it would ban flights to and from Belarus. The growing isolation means that Belarusians will increasingly need to travel east to Russia in order to get out of the country.
Yevgeny Lipkovich, a popular Minsk-based blogger and commentator critical of Mr. Lukashenko, said that his own travels abroad had allowed him to “remain an optimist, despite the regime’s best efforts to force me into depression.”
“If they close down the air loophole, there’s no question that the pressure inside the country will increase,” Mr. Lipkovich said. “And it’s disgusting to live in a pariah state.”
Reporting was contributed by Ivan Nechepurenko from Moscow; Tomas Dapkus from Vilnius, Lithuania; Stanley Reed from London; and Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels.
The chorus of condemnation and outrage from across the European Union swelled on Monday as leaders began discussing possible penalties they could direct at Belarus for its forcing down of a civilian passenger jet.
The actions at their disposal are, however, somewhat limited, given that there are already E.U. sanctions against Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the brutal and erratic leader of Belarus who has clung to power despite huge protests against his government, and dozens of his immediate associates.
In a summit taking place Monday evening, European leaders were expected to discuss adding aviation-related sanctions.
The options may include designating Belarusian airspace unsafe for E.U. carriers, blocking flights from Belarus from landing in E.U. airports, and imposing sanctions against the national flag carrier, Belavia.
said that the government was responding to “unprecedented threats” from Belarus and that it would push for the European Union to impose further measures.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece, where the flight originated, said it was critical that the European Union take determined action, especially in light of the bloc’s frequent paralysis over foreign-affairs issues, including a recent failure to agree on a statement regarding the Middle East conflict.
“Our inability to reach a consensus on recent events in Israel and Gaza — where as a union we failed to present a unified stance — must not be repeated,” Mr. Mitsotakis told The Financial Times. “The forcible grounding of a commercial passenger aircraft in order to illegally detain a political opponent and journalist is utterly reprehensible and an unacceptable act of aggression that cannot be allowed to stand.”
Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, promised action at the leaders’ summit.
“The outrageous and illegal behavior of the regime in Belarus will have consequences,” she said in a tweet Sunday evening, adding that there must be sanctions for those “responsible for the#Ryanair hijacking.”
The European Union on Monday called on all E.U.- based airlines to stop flying over Belarus and began the process of banning Belarusian airlines from flying over the bloc’s airspace or landing in its airports — effectively blocking the country’s air connections to Western Europe.
The decision was announced Monday evening during a summit of European Union leaders in Brussels, and followed Belarus’s forced landing of a commercial flight between Athens and Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sunday.
After diverting the plane, the Belarusian authorities arrested Roman Protasevich, a young Belarusian dissident journalist on board.
On Monday, the European Union leaders demanded the “immediate release of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega and that their freedom of movement be guaranteed.” Ms. Sapega is Mr. Protasevich’s partner.
Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, and some of his associates.
But outraged over the forced landing of the Ryanair flight, European leaders wanted to step up the pressure, with the aviation-focused measures coming as a first step.
Leaders also pledged to add new sanctions against the Minsk regime, by imposing “additional listings of persons and entities as soon as possible.”
The transportation secretary said Monday that the safety of flights operated by U.S. airlines over Belarus should be reviewed after the Eastern European country forced a commercial flight to land in order to seize a dissident on board.
“That’s exactly what needs to be assessed right now,” the secretary, Pete Buttigieg, told CNN. “We, in terms of the international bodies we’re part of and as an administration with the F.A.A., are looking at that because the main reason my department exists is safety.”
The comments came after the authoritarian leader of Belarus dispatched a fighter jet on Sunday to intercept a Ryanair plane carrying the journalist Roman Protasevich. The plane was forced to land in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, where Mr. Protasevich was arrested.
The secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, condemned the forced diversion, saying it was a “shocking act” that “endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens.” And Michael O’Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, an Irish-based low-cost carrier, called the operation a “state -sponsored hijacking.”
called the re-routing to Minsk “utterly unacceptable,” adding that “any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences.”
Though not a major European hub, Minsk is served by multiple international airlines, including Lufthansa, KLM, Turkish Airlines and Air France. Delta Air Lines and United Airlines offer flights to Minsk through their partnerships with those European airlines as well as through Belavia, the Belarusian national carrier.
Belarus sits between Poland and Russia and also has borders with Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia, putting it in the path of some flights to and from major European airports.
The tray tables were being raised and the seat backs returned to the upright position as passengers on Ryanair Flight 4978 prepared for the scheduled landing in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. Then, suddenly, the plane made an abrupt U-turn.
There was no explanation given.
It would be roughly 15 minutes before the pilot came over the intercom and announced that the plane would be diverting to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, according to those on board.
For many passengers, it seemed, at first, it was most likely just one of those unexpected delays that can be part of airline travel — perhaps a technical problem, some speculated.
For one passenger, however, the situation was clear. And frightening.
Roman Protasevich, a prominent Belarusian opposition journalist who had been living in exile since 2019, started to panic.
told the Lithuanian broadcaster LRT upon arrival in Vilnius. “He said: ‘I know that death penalty awaits me in Belarus.’”
told a Lithuanian news website that the pilot was “visibly nervous” during the landing in Minsk.
Alyona Alymova, one of the passengers, wrote about the experience in a Facebook post, noting that for much of the time there was only “light anxiety.”
“There was no clear understanding of what was going on,” she wrote.
Some passengers learned about the bomb threat only hours later, when they could connect to the internet.
In an Instagram post, one passenger said that they were “treated as prisoners in Minsk.” Hours later, they were allowed in an airport lounge area with a small cafeteria.
“I want to see who will be responsible for this chaos,” she said.
At least six people who boarded the Ryanair flight in Athens were not on the plane when it finally arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania, the police commissioner of Lithuania said on Monday.
Among the six were the dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who were both detained.
The identities of the other four people who apparently got off the plane after it was forced to land in Minsk, Belarus, on Sunday are not publicly known — and are being investigated by the Lithuanian police.
“What I know is that six people did not arrive in Vilnius,” Renatas Pozela, Lithuania’s police commissioner general, said in a telephone interview with The New York Times.
Further details, he said, “are being looked into as part of the criminal investigation.”
The Lithuanian police opened a hijacking and kidnapping investigation into the forced landing of the plane, and they questioned the pilots after they landed in Vilnius on Sunday evening, Mr. Pozela said.
Police investigators are interviewing the passengers this week, he said.
“The pilots were the priority,” Mr. Pozela said. “We wanted to hear their stories. How did they see the situation? What did they do? Were there other planes?”
Mr. Pozela said he was not yet authorized to disclose any findings of the investigation.
It has all of the elements of a Jason Bourne plot: A commercial flight carrying a dissident journalist is intercepted by a MiG-29 fighter jet under orders from the strongman president of Belarus.
This protagonist is very much real. His name is Roman Protasevich, and on Sunday, he drew worldwide attention because the Belarusian government and its authoritarian leader went to extraordinary lengths to stop him.
Mr. Protasevich, 26, was traveling by commercial airline from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, when the Belarusian air force scrambled a fighter jet. The flight, on the Irish airline Ryanair, was diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where the millennial opposition figure was taken into custody.
The widely condemned tactic was the latest attempt by Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the country’s authoritarian leader, to suppress the influential voice of Mr. Protasevich.
NEXTA channel on the social media platform Telegram, which has become a popular conduit for Mr. Lukashenko’s foes to share information and organize demonstrations against the government.
He fled the country in 2019, fearing arrest. But he has continued to roil Mr. Lukashenko’s regime while living in exile in Lithuania, so much so that he was charged in November with inciting public disorder and social hatred.
As a teenager, Mr. Protasevich became a dissident, first drawing scrutiny from law enforcement. He was expelled from a prestigious school for participating in a protest rally in 2011 and later was expelled from the journalism program of the Minsk State University.
What happened on Sunday?
Mr. Protasevich was returning to Vilnius from an economic conference in Greece with the Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Greek officials said.
Twitter on Sunday for its detention of Mr. Protasevich. He called it a “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,” Mr. Blinken said. “The United States stands with the people of Belarus.”
What kind of punishment is he facing?
The government’s main security agency in Belarus, called the K.G.B., placed Mr. Protasevich’s name on a list of terrorists. If he is accused and convicted of terrorism, he could face the death penalty.
The charges of inciting public disorder and social hatred carry a punishment of more than 12 years in prison.
MOSCOW — The strongman president of Belarus sent a fighter jet to intercept a European airliner traveling through the country’s airspace on Sunday and ordered the plane to land in the capital, Minsk, where a prominent opposition journalist aboard was then seized, provoking international outrage.
The stunning gambit by Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, a brutal and erratic leader who has clung to power despite huge protests against his government last year, drew disbelief among European leaders. But it also underscored that with the support of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Mr. Lukashenko is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to repress dissent.
The Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, carrying some 170 passengers — among them the journalist, Roman Protasevich, 26 — was flying over Belarus when Belarusian air traffic controllers notified its pilots of “a potential security threat on board” and directed the plane to divert to Minsk, the Ireland-based airline said in a statement.
Mr. Lukashenko, often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator,” personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the Ryanair plane to the Minsk airport, his press service said. According to the statement, Mr. Lukashenko gave an “unequivocal order” to “make the plane do a U-turn and land.”
NEXTA Telegram channel, one of the most popular opposition outlets in Belarus, where most independent media organizations were forced to shut down following large-scale protests that convulsed the nation following a disputed presidential election in 2020.
Over the past few years, Mr. Protasevich has been living in Lithuania in exile, fearing imprisonment in Belarus, his home country, where he is accused of inciting hatred and mass disorder and faces more than 12 years in prison if convicted. In November, the country’s main security service, still called the K.G.B., put Mr. Protasevich on its list of terrorists.
Mr. Protasevich’s arrest demonstrated the lengths to which Mr. Lukashenko is ready to go in order to pursue his political opponents. Many of them have sought safe heaven in exile in Lithuania and Poland, but Sunday’s events showed that Mr. Lukashenko can reach them even in the air.
called it “abhorrent” in his Twitter account and demanded that the Belarusian authorities release Mr. Protasevich.
The Belarusian authorities said they took the action after receiving information about the bomb threat and did so even though Vilnius, the plane’s destination, was much closer than Minsk when it was forced down. Mr. Lukashenko and his government are known to use ruses to pursue their political opponents.
The country’s Defense Ministry said in another statement that the country’s air defense forces were put on high alert.
violence, Mr. Lukashenko managed to successfully crack down on protesters, with the country’s security apparatus remaining loyal to him.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Mr. Lukashenko’s main opponent during the last presidential election in August, which was widely regarded as rigged, called the episode with the Ryanair flight “an operation by the special services to hijack an aircraft in order to detain activist and blogger Roman Protasevich.”
“Not a single person who flies over Belarus can be sure of his safety,” she said.
Matina Stevis-Gridneff contributed reporting from Brussels, and Niki Kitsantonis from Athens.
The first signs of the tourism season creeping back to life were visible at Greece’s ports and airports on Saturday as the country officially opened its doors to international visitors.
After lifting quarantine requirements for dozens of countries last month, the Greek authorities expanded the eligibility to more nations on Friday and relaxed some restrictions. Travelers must present a certificate of vaccination, proof of recovery from Covid or a negative PCR test.
The first flights arriving at Athens International Airport came from France, Germany, Sweden, Lithuania, Latvia and Switzerland, with most visitors heading for the Greek islands. Hundreds lined up for ferries at the country’s main port of Piraeus, near the capital, joining Greeks taking advantage of the ending of a ban on travel between the country’s regions.
Heraklion Airport on Crete was buzzing for the first time in months, with Germans, French and Israelis among the first arrivals, and the authorities said they expected 10,000 arrivals on the island over the next three days. Mykonos and Santorini, two of the country’s most popular summer destinations, welcomed just a handful of flights, as hotel occupancy remains set at around 30 percent for May. But hopes are high for the summer, with bookings for July close to 90 percent.
Two fire engines sprayed celebratory jets of water over aircraft arriving from Qatar on Friday while sounding their sirens. Boats similarly greeted the arrival of cruise ships to Crete.
The mood was upbeat on many islands, where a vaccination drive has been ramped up with the aim of inoculating hundreds of thousands of permanent residents by the end of June, in time for peak tourism season.
The country, having suffered heavy economic losses last year because of the pandemic, is determined to save its summer tourist season. Last month, when some restrictions were lifted, a third wave of coronavirus infections was in full force, and hospitals were facing high pressure.
About 14 percent of people in the country have been fully vaccinated, according to data from the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford. The virus has sickened more than 373,000 people in Greece, and more than 11,300 have died.