Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, has unleashed a brutal campaign against his opponents. More than 35,000 people have been arrested, thousands have been tortured or abused, and 400 political prisoners are currently behind bars. Earlier this week a 50-year-old opposition activist, Vitold Ashurok, died in a penal colony. The official cause of death was “heart attack”. His widow believes he was murdered.
It is against this dark and repressive backdrop that the extraordinary events of Sunday took place. According to state media, Lukashenko personally authorised the forced downing of a Ryanair plane as it flew over Belarusian airspace between Greece and Lithuania – a real-time hijacking. He even dispatched a MIG-29 fighter jet to ensure the pilot complied after being informed of a fake bomb threat.