REPORTERS WITHOUT BORDERS (RSF) secretary-general Christophe Deloire, following a meeting with a senior criminal prosecutor in Vilnius on 27 May, has welcomed the decision of the Lithuanian prosecutor-general’s office to investigate Belarusian President Alexandre Lukashenko for criminal hijacking as the RSF had requested.

In a complaint filed in Vilnius on 25 May, two days after the Belarusian air force forced a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk where Belarusian journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich was arrested, RSF formally asked Lithuania’s prosecutors to investigate Lukashenko and any other person they identify for “hijacking a plane with terrorist intent.”

Deloire and the head of the RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, Jeanne Cavelier, met on 27 Ma ywith Martynas Jovaiša, chief prosecutor of the department for organised crime and corruption investigation at the prosecutor general’s office.

Jovaiša expressed “the satisfaction [of the prosecutor general’s office] that an international organisation like RSF has taken interest in this procedure” and added that RSF’s complaint “has been incorporated into the criminal investigation,” .

Following the meeting, Deloire said: “We welcome the opening of this investigation and the quality of the dialogue initiated with the prosecutor general’s office,” The charges [of ‘hijacking a plane with terrorist intent’] accepted by Lithuania’s prosecutor-general are appropriate and their application to a head of state is unprecedented. We are of the view that there is no doubt about Lukashenko’s intention of terrorising the journalistic community, and the tragic fate suffered by Raman and his girlfriend Sofia confirms this. The entire European judicial arsenal, including a European arrest warrant, should be activated to ensure that this extremely serious crime does not go unpunished and that they are released.”

The RSF delegation also met with a group of Belarusian journalists in exile and the leader of the Belarusian opposition, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who emphasised the importance of international campaigning, including by RSF. “Journalists are the leading target”, she said.

Deloire emphasised the need to reinforce international mechanisms for protecting journalists and proposed guidelines for supporting Belarusian journalists. He also announced that RSF has joined others in asking the Media Freedom Coalition (MFC), which was created at the initiative of the British and Canadian governments, to take up the issue of Belarusian journalists, including at the next G7 summit.

During a meeting with Lithuania’s deputy foreign-minister Mantas Adomėnas, RSF hailed the important role played by Lithuania in helping to improve international law on the protection of journalists. It was under Lithuania’s UN Security Council presidency that the Security Council adopted Resolution 2222 on the protection of journalists in May 2015, and RSF’s secretary-general spoke at the session in New York.

RSF has been calling for the creation of the position of special representative of the UN secretary-general for the safety of journalists to serve as a mechanism for enforcing international law on the protection of journalists. “After this astonishing affair, Lithuania has every legitimacy and every reason to use its influence to obtain the creation of this position, which is essential”, Deloire said.

EU Leaders have also condemned the actions of Belarus in arresting Pratasevich. David Sassoli, President of the European Parliament, demanded “immediate explanations” and the release of Pratasevich and Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said that “any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences.”

As a result of the unprecedented persecution of journalists since Lukashenko’s disputed re-election in August 2020, Belarus fell five places in the RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index and is now ranked 158th out of 180 countries.

 * See the World Press Freedom Index here.

* Source: Reporters Without Borders