The Belarusian minister responsible for illegally diverting a Ryanair flight to arrest opposition journalist Roman Protasevich has mysteriously died.
Aleksey Avramenko died suddenly on July 4 at the age of 46, according to the state-run Belta news agency, citing government information.
The agency did not report a cause of death.
Avramenko was the country’s Minister of Transport and Communications and was behind the illegal diversion of passenger flight FR4978 to Minsk airport on May 23, 2021, as it was traveling from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius in Lithuania.
Opposition activist and journalist Protasevich and his then-girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested by authorities in a move that was widely condemned in the West.
Aleksey Avramenko, the Belarusian minister responsible for illegally diverting a Ryanair flight to detain opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, has died mysteriously.
Avramenko was born in Minsk in 1977. He worked in road construction and maintenance before holding various positions at the Ministry of Transport.
He became deputy transport minister in 2013 and then first deputy minister in 2019, before finally assuming the ministry’s top post in 2019.
This meant that he was the country’s transport minister in 2021 and reported directly to Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko when FR4978 was diverted.
Protasevich ran a Telegram messaging app channel that was widely used by participants in mass protests against the disputed August 2020 election that gave authoritarian Lukashenko a sixth term.
The channel, Nexta, is one of the best-known opposition outlets in Belarus. Along with its sister channel, Nexta Live, it has 1.4 million followers.
The protests, which lasted for months, were the longest and largest in opposition to Lukashenko since he took power in 1994.
The Belarusian authorities responded to the demonstrations with a brutal crackdown in which more than 35,000 people were arrested, thousands were beaten by police and dozens of media outlets and non-governmental organizations were shut down.
Protasevich was living in exile at the time, but he and his girlfriend were arrested when their Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was ordered to land in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
Belarusian authorities said there was a bomb threat, but later said no explosives were found on board.
The incident caused outrage in Western countries, with UK, EU and NATO officials condemning it as tantamount to a kidnapping.
Roman Protasevich was interviewed on Belarusian television in June 2021, a month after Avramenko, the country’s Minister of Transport and Communications, ordered passenger flight FR4978 to be diverted to Minsk airport.
Belarusian police arrest Roman Protasevich in Minsk in March 2017
Protasevich went on to stand trial on charges of organizing a riot and conspiring to seize power. The court sentenced him to eight years in prison in May 2022.
The founder of the Nexta Telegram channel, Stsiapan Putsila, and another editor of the channel, Yan Rudzik, were sentenced in absentia to 20 and 19 years in prison respectively. Both remain in exile.
After the arrest, Protasevich appeared several times on Belarusian state television to confess, denounce the opposition and apologize to Lukashenko, appearances critics say were made under duress.
Both Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sapega, were later released and placed under house arrest.
In May 2022, Sapega was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.
Three days later, a message on a Telegram channel advertised as belonging to Protasevich sought to distance him from Sapega, saying they had separated long before and that he was married to someone else.
It could not be independently verified whether the post was freely written by Protasevich or any of the statements it contained, or obtained under duress.
Sapega asked the Belarusian authorities to extradite her to her home country of Russia to serve out the remainder of her sentence. The Belarusian government agreed.
Belarusian opposition leader in exile, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, called the sentences handed down against Protasevich, Putsila and Rudzik “contempt for justice” by the “Belarusian regime”, which had carried out “a sham trial”. .
A sniffer dog checks flight FR4978 at Minsk airport on May 23, 2021, after Belarusian authorities said there was a bomb threat on the plane. No explosives were found on board.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya said in a tweet that Protasevich has “been a hostage to the regime since the Ryanair hijacking.”
In May this year, Protasevich announced that he had received a presidential pardon, the Belarusian state news agency reported at the time. “I literally just signed all the relevant documents that I was pardoned. This, of course, is great news,’ he told the Belta news agency.
The Viasna human rights organization says nearly 1,500 people have been jailed in Belarus in connection with opposition activities.
That includes Viasna founder Ales Bialiatski, one of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize winners. He was sentenced to ten years in prison in May.
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