Belarus police detain journalist Roman Protasevich center, in Minsk, Belarus March 26, 2017. Protasevich was arrested after an airliner in which he was riding was diverted to Belarus.
The brazen arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich by the Belarusian government, in which it forced the international flight he was aboard to land in Minsk, has sent a chill down the spine of the international community.
Protasevich, the former editor and founder of Nexta, an anti-regime blog and social media channel, has been instrumental in leading protests against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
The unprecedented steps taken by Belarus to capture a fugitive dissident have broad implications. Political leaders, human rights advocates and international law experts are calling Protasevich's detainment tantamount to an act of state terrorism.
"It's a threat to human rights. It's a threat to democracy. And it's a threat to civil aviation," says Allen Weiner, a senior lecturer in law at Stanford Law School.
Protasevich's arrest is another example of "transnational repression."
In recent years authoritarian governments have become ever-bolder in their efforts to silence opposition or threats well beyond their own borders.
Governments are reaching across continents to silence dissent among diasporas and exiles. "Transnational repression" comes in the form of assassinations, illegal deportations, abductions, online threats, and intimidation of family members, according to Freedom House, a U.S.-based nonprofit conducting research on democracy, political freedom, and human rights.
"It is a daily assault on civilians everywhere," Freedom House says.
Recent well-publicized incidents include Russia's use of nerve agents in an attack against Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, and his daughter, Yulia, in England in 2018. That same year, Saudi Arabia kidnapped and murdered Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist and critic of the government, inside the country's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
In the case of Protasevich "they reached into the skies to take somebody," says Robert English, a professor and director of Central European Studies at the University of Southern California.
Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor, was killed on October 2, 2018, after a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain paperwork before marrying his Turkish fiancée.
Yasin Akgul/AFP via Getty Images
The Belarusian dissident was a passenger on a Ryanair flight which had taken off in Athens, Greece, and was on its way to Vilnius, Lithuania. As the plane crossed Belarusian airspace, air traffic controllers told the pilots that a bomb was aboard, and ordered them to make an emergency landing in Minsk. A military jet was sent to escort the plane down. Once on the ground, officials boarded the plane and arrested Protasevich. No explosives were found.
Protasevich's arrest is "beyond the pale," and takes the world to a more dangerous level, English says.
The transnational arrest or murder of dissidents has a chilling effect, Freedom House says.
"Even those who are not directly targeted may decide based on the threat against their community to remain silent," the group says. "This is true of the most extreme violence: a single killing or rendition sends ripples throughout a huge circle of people."
Belarus's actions could set a dangerous precedent.
Belarus showed a disregard for international law and aviation rules in its arrest of Protasevich, Weiner says.
"The concern is that if those rules are not abided by or there don't appear to be costs for disregarding those rules, then other people will decide, well, maybe I will find it to be convenient to violate the rules," he says.
In the past decade, the world has seen "a decline in democracy and a rise in authoritarianism," Weiner says. What's happening in Belarus is an example of this, he adds.