The day after a group of protesters gathered outside the State House in Concord to draw attention to human rights abuses in Belarus, a passenger airline was forced to land in the country and a journalist was forced to land in the country. edge was stopped.
The hijacking of a Ryanair flight by Belarusian authorities has sparked international outrage and calls for severe sanctions against the former Soviet country and President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled with an iron fist for more than a quarter century.
The day before the airline’s forced landing, a group of around 30 protesters in Concord held up placards demanding the release of political prisoners held in this eastern European country north of Ukraine. The signs read: “New Hampshire says freedom in Belarus” and “Stop fascism”.
“Unfortunately, in the very heart of Europe, the Lukashenko regime shamelessly rigged the presidential elections, illegally seized power, violated the constitution and held the whole nation hostage,” said Inna Shablygin, a resident of Bedford. “Belarusians have been victims of state terrorism.”
They said Belarus held more than 400 political prisoners, including journalists, human rights organizations and political activists who criticized Lukashenko.
Protesters took a moment’s silence to remember one such activist, Vitold Ashurak, who they say was sentenced to five years in prison for expressing his political views and died in a penal colony the week last.
“They can take their voice, they can take their freedom, they can take their life, but they can’t take our solidarity away from them,” said Nikolai Makaranka, a Cambridge, Massachusetts resident.
The Ryanair flight was traveling from Athens to Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital on Sunday, and was flying in Belarusian airspace about 10 km from the Lithuanian border when it changed direction and turned to the capital, Minsk.
Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told pilots there was a bomb threat against the airliner and ordered them to land immediately. The Belarusian military has jammed a MiG-29 fighter jet in an apparent attempt to encourage the crew to comply with orders from flight controllers.
After the plane landed, Belarusian security agents arrested Raman Pratasevich, who ran a popular messaging app that helped organize mass protests against Lukashenko. They also removed Pratasevich’s Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega, who is studying at a university in Vilnius, from the plane.
Passengers described Pratasevich’s shock when he realized the plane was going to land in Minsk.
“I saw this Belarusian guy with his girlfriend sitting right behind us. He panicked when the pilot said the plane was being diverted to Minsk. He said there was the death penalty waiting for him there, ”said passenger Marius Rutkauskas after the plane finally arrived in Vilnius. “We sat for an hour after landing. Then they started releasing passengers and took these two. We did not see them again.
Agents with dogs checked the plane and the passengers’ luggage, and eventually allowed the flight to continue to Vilnius a few hours later.
Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary described the move as “a case of state-sponsored hijacking … state-sponsored hacking.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the incident “shocking” and called for Pratasevich’s release. The European Union summoned the Belarusian ambassador to condemn the act against the airliner, which was traveling between two of the bloc’s member countries.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it amounted to “hijacking”, and Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called it “a state sponsored terrorist act”.
Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to open an investigation. The organization later said it “was deeply concerned about the apparent forced landing.”
Saturday’s rally in Concord ended with the reading of a letter sent to US Senator Jeanne Shaheen, asking for more funding from Belarusian civil society, toughening sanctions against the Lukashenko regime and restricting access by authorities Belarusians to surveillance technologies.
“This is an extraordinary abuse of power by the Lukashenko regime,” Shaheen tweeted on Sunday. “His despicable effort to silence the opposition has reached new levels and NATO and EU member states must hold him to account. Raman Pratasevich and all other political prisoners must be released immediately. “