Belarusians living in Poland and Poles supporting them hold up a placard reading 'Free Roman Protasevich' during a demonstration in front of the European Commission office in Warsaw on May 24, 2021, demanding freedom for Belarus opposition activist Roman Protasevich a day after a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying the dissident journalist was diverted while in Belarusian airspace. - The Belarus Interior Ministry said on May 24 that opposition activist Roman Protasevich, who was aboard the diverted Ryanair flight, is being held in the capital Minsk and dismissed unconfirmed reports that he was hospitalised. The passenger flight from Athens to Vilnius was diverted while in Belarusian airspace on May 23 over a supposed bomb threat, prompting a global outcry to Minsk's forced landing of the aircraft. (Photo by Wojtek RADWANSKI / AFP) (Photo by WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Belarus apparently kidnapped a dissident journalist out of the air

When Europe's Ryanair airline released their first statement on the surprise emergency landing of a Greece-to-Lithuania flight in Belarus's capital of Vilnius on Sunday evening (local time) you'd never know they were talking about what has since become a major international incident.

"A potential security threat" necessitating "security checks" resulting in "nothing untoward" being found. Sounds like everything is fine and dandy and entirely under control, right? Wrong. Less than 24 hours later, Ryanair released this second statement, which is a serious, uh, tonal shift from the company's first one.

"An act of aviation piracy"? Uh, what changed?

As it turns out, quite a bit. What had initially been characterized as a "regrettable delay" is increasingly looking like a brazen attempt by Belarusian Dictator-President Alexander Lukashenko to abduct 26-year-old dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, whose activism against the Russian-backed Lukashenko regime earned him the ire of the Belarus government.

While Belarusian authorities claim that a fighter jet was scrambled to escort the passenger flight to Vilnius in response to a bomb threat from Hamas (which has denied the allegation, and has no real reach outside of Palestine and Israel), it seems virtually certain that the plane was actually forced to land by the Belarusian military for the sole purpose of arresting Protasevich. The journalist was described as having been "super scared" by other passengers on the flight.

"He was not screaming, but it was clear that he was very much afraid," one passenger told the Agence France-Presse, while another claimed Protasevich "said he was facing the death penalty."

Indeed, one day after his abduction, Protasevich appeared seated at a plain wooden table in a video released by Belarusian authorities. The footage, which feels conspicuously similar to a hostage video, features Protasevich insisting he is being treated according to the law, and admitting that he took part in previous protests against the Lukashenko government.

"We hope that he will cope," Protasevich's father Dmitri told the BBC. "We are afraid to even think about it, but it's possible he could be beaten and tortured. We are really afraid of that."

"This sort of thing shouldn't be happening in the 21st century at the heart of Europe," he added.

While Belarus is not a European Union member state, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen nevertheless blasted the abduction as "utterly unacceptable," echoing similar sentiments from the Greek, German, Polish, and French governments.

"This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenko regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens," Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Sunday. "Initial reports suggesting the involvement of the Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane are deeply concerning and require full investigation."

In addition to an investigation, Blinken said the U.S. "demand[s Protasevich's] immediate release."