Protesters in Concord accuse Belarus of human rights violations

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    On Saturday, a group of about 30 protesters in Concord held signs demanding the release of political prisoners held in Belarus, the Eastern European nation north of Ukraine. Signs read, “New Hampshire says freedom in Belarus” and "Stop Fascism.” —Courtesy

  • On Saturday, a group of about 30 protesters in Concord held signs demanding the release of political prisoners held in Belarus, the Eastern European nation north of Ukraine. Courtesy

  • Nikolai Makaranka speaks to a group in Concord who demanded the release of political prisoners in Belarus. Courtesy

  • Anthony Bajdek, president and founder of Polish American Congress of New Hampshire, speaks to a group of about 30 protesters in Concord on Saturday, who demanded the release of political prisoners held in Belarus. —Courtesy

Published: 5/24/2021 3:33:12 PM

The day after a group of protesters gathered in front of the State House in Concord to draw attention to human rights violations in Belarus, a passenger airline was forced to land in the country and a journalist aboard was arrested.

The diversion of a Ryanair flight by Belarus authorities has sparked international outrage and calls for tough sanctions against the former Soviet nation and President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled with an iron fist for over a quarter-century.

The day before the airline was forced to land, a group of about 30 protesters in Concord held signs demanding the release of political prisoners held in the Eastern European nation north of Ukraine. Signs read, “New Hampshire says freedom in Belarus,” and “Stop Fascism.”

“Unfortunately, in the very heart of Europe, Lukashenko’s regime shamelessly rigged presidential elections, illegally seized power, violated the constitution and took the whole nation hostage,” said Inna Shablygin, a resident of Bedford. “People in Belarus became victims of state terrorism.”

They said Belarus is holding more than 400 political prisoners, including journalists, human rights works and political activists who have been critical of Lukashenko.

The protesters took a moment of silence to remember one of those activists, Vitold Ashurak, who they say was sentenced to five years in jail for expressing his political views and died at a prison colony last week.

“They can take their voice, they can take their freedom, they can take their lives, but they can not take our solidarity from them,” said Nikolai Makaranka, a resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Ryanair flight was traveling Sunday from Athens to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, and was flying in Belarus airspace about six miles from the Lithuanian border when it changed direction and turned toward the capital city of Minsk.

Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the pilots that there was a bomb threat against the jetliner and ordered them to immediately land. The Belarusian military scrambled a MiG-29 fighter jet in an apparent attempt to encourage the crew to comply with the orders of flight controllers.

Once the plane landed, Belarusian security agents arrested Raman Pratasevich, who ran a popular messaging app that helped organize mass demonstrations against Lukashenko. They also removed from the plane Pratasevich’s Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who studies at a Vilnius university.

Passengers described Pratasevich’s shock when he realized that the plane was going to land in Minsk.

“I saw this Belarusian guy with girlfriend sitting right behind us. He freaked out when the pilot said the plane is diverted to Minsk. He said there’s death penalty awaiting him there,” passenger Marius Rutkauskas said after the plane finally arrived in Vilnius. “We sat for an hour after the landing. Then they started releasing passengers and took those two. We did not see them again.”

Agents with dogs checked the plane and the passenger luggage, and eventually let the flight continue to Vilnius hours later.

Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary described the move as “a case of state-sponsored hijacking … state-sponsored piracy.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the incident “shocking” and appealed for Pratasevich’s release. The European Union summoned Belarus’ ambassador to condemn the act against the jetliner, which was traveling between two of the bloc’s member nations.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it amounted to a “hijacking,” and Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called it a “state-sponsored terror act.”

Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to begin an investigation. The organization later said it “is strongly concerned by the apparent forced landing.”

Saturday’s rally in Concord ended with the reading of a letter sent to U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, asking for more funding to the Belarusian civil society, toughening the sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime, and restricting access of the Belarusian authorities to surveillance technologies.

 “This is an extraordinary abuse of power from the Lukashenka regime,” Shaheen tweeted Sunday. “His despicable effort to silence the opposition has reached new levels and NATO & EU member states must hold him to account. Raman Pratasevich, and all other political prisoners, must be released immediately.”

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