Even when our most basic civilizational values are in dispute, there are a few sets of rules and regulations that we nevertheless manage to share. The laws of the sea, for example, or the norms governing the conduct of air-traffic controllers. Pilots of any nationality, even when flying to Caracas, Havana, or Pyongyang, have no reason to believe that the instructions they receive from the ground are political or deceitful, or meant to achieve any purpose other than a safe landing.
Now the dictator of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, has shattered that basic assumption in a stunt with no exact precedent. Yesterday, aviation authorities there collaborated in the hijacking of a Ryanair plane that was crossing through Belarusian airspace en route from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania. Belarusian air-traffic control falsely told the pilots that the plane had a bomb on board. According to Belarusian state media, the plane was then “escorted” to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, by a MiG fighter jet.
In reality, there was no bomb, the threat was fake, and Minsk was not even the closest airport; after the plane landed, nobody rushed to get the passengers to safety. The real point of the exercise became clear after two passengers were removed. One of them was Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian opposition blogger and journalist. The other was his girlfriend, Sofya Sapega. Protasevich was one of the original editors of Nexta, a Telegram blogging channel that became one of the most important sources of public information during mass anti-regime demonstrations that took place in Minsk last summer. Protasevich fled the country in 2019 and has been living in exile ever since. In absentia, the Belarusian state had declared him a “terrorist.” While he was being taken away, he told one of the other passengers, “I am facing the death penalty.” Certainly, a prison sentence in Belarus can include Soviet-style interrogations, isolation, and torture.