Belarusian authorities’ shocking action on Sunday to force down a Ryanair flight on false pretenses to enable them to detain activist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sofya Sapega, was not just a violation of international law but a brutal demonstration of how far Belarus’s lawless regime will go to snuff out any hint of dissent.
Pratasevich’s life is at serious risk. He is the former editor of Nexta, an opposition Telegram channel that covered and helped organize some of the mass protests that followed the highly disputed August 9 presidential vote in Belarus. He could face up to 15 years in prison on charges of organizing mass riots. Nexta is banned in Belarus as “extremist,” and Pratsevich was placed on the list of “individuals involved in terrorist activity.” From everything we know about Belarus’ inhuman law enforcement system, Pratesevich is at grave risk of torture, and so is Sapega. The call by Belarus’s leading human rights groups for their immediate release and to be allowed to leave the country if they wish should be supported.
By forcing the flight to land, Belarusian authorities are sending a message to civil society – in case they missed the point during the crackdown of the past nine months – that they will stop at nothing to try to crush dissent. No action is too lawless, too cruel.
These are the same authorities who in September kidnapped three Belarusian opposition activists and dumped them at the Ukrainian border to forcibly expel them. One, Maria Kolesnikova, tore up her passport to avoid being expelled. She was arrested in September on bogus charges of conspiring to seize power and creating an extremist group.
Belarus authorities have threatened parents involved in the protests and investigative journalists that they will send their children to orphanages. They go to absurd lengths to intimidate people from wearing or using the red-and-white stripe pattern of the banned inter-war Belarusian nationalist flag.
There is also the more conventional usurping of the criminal justice system to silence dissent. Authorities have arrested tens of thousands of people for mostly peaceful protests. They’ve tortured hundreds. They’ve raided dozens of human rights groups and media outlets, and arrested numerous activists and journalists on bogus mass rioting, tax, and other charges.
Transatlantic leaders are rightly calling for – and hopefully setting in motion – an international criminal investigation. What cannot get lost in the mix is the need to protect Raman Pratasevich and Sofya Sapega and to support Belarus’s civil society from their viciously abusive government.