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Belarus Journalist Arrested after Flight Diverted to Minsk 

A Belarusian journalist wanted by the government of Alexander Lukashenko was arrested after the plane he was traveling on made an unscheduled landing in Minsk on May 23 after what appears to have been a false bomb threat.Raman Pratasevich was taken away by police shortly after the Ryanair flight, which was on a scheduled route from Athens to Vilnius, landed in the Belarusian capital.No bomb was found, according to Belarussian media reports. No further details were immediately available. It was unclear who had reported the bomb threat. The headquarters of Belarusian opposition leader Svaitlana Tsikhanouskaya reported that the Ryanair flight crew received a message about a bomb on board the plane and that a MiG-29 military fighter was dispatched to escort the passenger jet to the airport in Minsk.Tsikhanouskaya’s office said the flight was near the border with Lithuania when the message was received. It was closer to the airport in Vilnius but instead it headed to Minsk.Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said it was an “unprecedented event” that a civilian passenger plane flying to Vilnius was forced to land in Minsk.”Flag of Belarus regime is behind the abhorrent action. I demand to free Roman Protasevic urgently!” Nauseda said on Twitter.Pratasevich was a key administrator of the Telegram channel NEXTA Live, which has been covering the protests that broke out in Belarus following the country’s disputed presidential election last August.In November, Belarusian authorities announced that Pratasevich, along with Stsyapan Putsila — also a NEXTA Live administrator — were being investigated on suspicions of organizing mass disorder, disrupting the social order, and inciting social hatred.Belarus has been rocked by protests since Lukashenka, in power since 1994, was declared the landslide winner of the poll amid allegations of vote-rigging. Since then, more than 30,000 people have been detained, hundreds beaten or tortured, and journalists targeted in the crackdown by Lukashenka, whose government has been hit by Western sanctions.In October, a court in Minsk designated the NEXTA Live channel and its logo as extremist and instructed the Information Ministry to restrict access to information resources using the name and logo of the Telegram channel, as well as their distribution in the Belarusian segment of the Internet.NEXTA Live then changed its name and logo, switching from the Latin transliteration of its name to a Cyrillic one.Fearing prosecution, Pratasevich and Putsila fled the country and their whereabouts have not been known.In October, Putsila, along with several Belarusian activists, received the European Parliament’s 2020 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.Media in Belarus have been targeted by the Lukashenka government in the ongoing crackdown. The watchdog Reporters Without Borders has designated Belarus as the most dangerous spot in Europe for journalists.On May 21, Belarusian security forces raided a Minsk studio used by a Polish-based TV station that has produced investigations critical of Lukashenka and his associates.Belsat said uniformed officers broke into a studio on May 21 used for producing a talk show, detaining six people, including four cameramen.In April, the channel published an investigation into the business dealings of Lukashenka’s daughter-in-law and others associated with him.Earlier this year, two journalists for Belsat were handed what their lawyers called an “absurd” sentence of two years in prison each for reporting live from a rally in Minsk in November.Earlier this week, police launched a probe of the country’s largest independent online media outlet, Tut.by, searching the homes of several of its editors and blocking its website.Meanwhile, a Minsk court on May 21 sentenced another reporter who covered the police raid on Tut.by to a 15-day prison sentence, a media advocacy group said.The Belarusian Association of Journalists said 27 media workers are currently behind bars, either awaiting trial or serving sentences. 

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