The government of Aleksandr Lukashenko claims someone called a bomb threat on the flight, although the charade was used to arrest opposition journalist Roman Protasevich
Sleight Detour to Minsk
Belarus has been accused of state-sponsored terrorism after it forced Ryanair flight 4978 to land Sunday in order to arrest a journalist on board.
Belarus; however, tells the story differently.
According to its Interior Ministry, a bomb threat was called in about the flight from Greece to Lithuania. While over Belarusian airspace, the flight got a call from air traffic control saying that it had to land in Minsk. Reportedly, President Aleksandr Lukashenko personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter plane to escort the flight all the way.
After landing, no bombs were found on the plane, but Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich was on board. Protasevich is a co-founder of the NEXTA telegram channel, which is one of the few remaining free-press outlets remaining in Belarus following a severe crackdown on the press in 2020. When he realized the plane was being forced to land, France24 reports that Protasevich told other passengers that “he was facing the death penalty.”
After seven hours on the tarmac, the plane took off again to Lithuania with everyone but Protasevich on board. Belarus maintains that the plane was not forced to land because Protasevich was on board, and the country’s top investigative body claims it’s taking the false-bomb report very seriously by vowing to investigate who made the outrageous threat.
Few believe the bomb threat story, finding it too convenient that the flight just so happened to be the flight of one of Lukashenko’s biggest critics onboard.
When his arrest became known, NEXTA’s leadership removed all of Protasevich’s NEXTA Telegram privileges to ensure the safety of its 250,000 members.
Around the world, leaders condemned the act. Speaking about the incident, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “We strongly condemn the Lukashenko regime’s brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist. We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps.”
The European Commission, the European Union’s executive body, called the incident “utterly unacceptable.” While individual European states were more forceful. The Greek Foreign Ministry called Belarus’ actions a “state hijacking,” while Poland’s Prime Minister called it an “act of state terrorism.” Germany and France also added to the criticism, with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas remarking, “such an act cannot remain without clear consequences.”
Still, it’s unclear what those consequences can be. Belarus is not part of the E.U., meaning the bloc can’t impose internal restrictions. For international pressure, Belarus’ top leaders and institutions are already under crippling sanctions over how it cracked down on opposition figures in a hotly contested presidential election last year.
Some of the most critical reactions came from the Baltic countries, with Lithuania’s President demanding that Belarus’ airspace be declared unsafe and the Belarusian aircraft not be accepted at E.U. airports.
However, in places like Russia, Lukashenko’s actions were met with praise. Margarita Simonyan, editor of the RT propaganda television network, said the Belarusian president “played it beautifully.”
While countries decide what to do, some airlines have already taken matters into their own hands. Some carriers, like airBaltic, told its captains to “avoid entering Belarus airspace until the situation becomes clearer or a decision is issued by the authorities.” Carriers like Wizz air have made similar plans until more guidance is given.
For its part, Ryanair said it won’t reroute flights over Belarus until more guidance from the E.U. comes, but its CEO did note that the carrier has very few flights over Belarus anyways.
See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (CNN) (The Guardian)
Hong Kong’s Apple Daily Raided, Top Editors and Execs Arrested
Police claim the paper violated a controversial National Security law by publishing articles that asked foreign countries to sanction the Hong Kong and Chinese government.
Apple Daily Raid
Nearly 500 Chinese police officers carried out a raid on Thursday at the headquarters of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily, a tabloid-style paper and one of the largest publications in the city.
During the aid, which was live-streamed by the outlet, police arrested top executives and editors while also seizing journalistic materials over violations of the city’s controversial National Security law. Apple Daily said CEO Cheung Kim Hung, COO Chow Tat Kuen, Editor-in-Chief Ryan Law, Deputy Chief Editor Chan Pui-man, and Online Editor Cheung Chi-wai were arrested and accused of “colluding with foreign forces and external elements to endanger national security.”
Police also froze $1.8 million in Apple Daily assets.
John Lee, Hong Kong’s Security Secretary, told reporters that “this case involves a conspiracy” and added that the police were targeting those who use journalism as a “tool to endanger national security.”
Police claim that since 2019, Apple Daily has published articles calling on foreign countries to sanction the Chinese and Hong Kong governments. Many of those articles were published before the National Security law went into effect, meaning the law is being applied retroactively.
However, China’s Deputy Director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office said the law wouldn’t be retroactive, so it’s unclear if there’s been a shift in policy and if authorities are seeking to change how they approach violations that occurred before the law was enacted.
Not Meant to Restrict Freedom of the Press
Thursday’s raid could also have repercussions for other Hong Kongers. The city’s Senior Superintendent of the Police’s National Security Department warned citizens not to repost certain Apple Daily articles by saying, “If you have no real reason to share these types of articles, I would advise everyone not to.”
He claimed that this raid wasn’t targeting the press but rather one individual organization that violated the law. He also said Hong Kong’s government values the freedom of the press, a right that is supposed to be enshrined in the city’s Basic Law. Lee concurred with the Senior Superintendent, adding, “Please understand that our actions are not targeting journalistic work. We target perpetrators who use journalistic work as a tool to endanger acts of national security.”
Apple Daily has vowed to carry on with its work while also acknowledging that its fate was out of its hands. In a letter to its readers, the paper wrote, “In today’s Hong Kong, we are unfamiliar and speechless.”
“It seems that we are powerless to deal with it, and it is difficult to prevent the regime from doing whatever it wants.”
See what others are saying: (AP) (The New York Times) (NBC News)
Hamas Launches Incendiary Balloons Into Israel Over Right-Wing March, Israel Responds With Airstrikes
No casualties were reported and the tentative ceasefire that ended last month’s hostilities largely remains in place.
10 Minutes of Airstrikes
Alleged Hamas training facilities were hit by Israeli airstrikes early Wednesday morning as a response to the group sending incendiary balloons into Israeli territory late Tuesday night.
The airstrikes, which lasted for 10 minutes, destroyed two compounds while the balloons started about 20 fires across southern Israel. There were no casualties on either side and damage was kept to a relative minimum. By Wednesday morning, calm had returned and neither group pursued further hostilities.
Hamas risked breaking a tenuous ceasefire in order to respond to right-wing Israeli demonstrators that marched through Palestinian neighborhoods to commemorate a holiday that is seen as highly provocative. The ceasefire has gone on to its eleventh day, stopping widespread rocket and airstrike campaigns that left hundreds of buildings in Gaza destroyed and dozens in Israel damaged.
The marchers were celebrating Jerusalem Flag Day, a day to mark Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem and its holy sites during the 1967 Middle East War. It was originally supposed to occur on May 10 but was delayed as fighting between Hamas and Israel began last month. Hamas actually listed the celebrations as one of its primary causes for starting hostilities and warned that any further Jerusalem Flag Day events in East Jerusalem would be met with violence.
Tuesday’s march proved to be one of the first big tests faced by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who only just started the job this week. As a right-wing figure himself, he supported the marchers and saw rerouting or canceling the event as giving into Hamas’ demands. However, his center and left-wing allies pushed for the event to be canceled. In the end, security forces slightly amended the route to avoid passing through the Damascus Gate and into the Muslim Quarter.
Those same security forces have been accused by Palestinian protesters of violence as they moved to disperse anti-Israel demonstrations and make way for Flag Day marchers. According to the Palestinian Red Crescent, at least 33 Palestinians were injured by police in those clashes.
Chants of “Death to Arabs!”
The celebrations by Israelis were largely peaceful, if not extremely provocative. The entire holiday itself is seen as a celebration of what many Arabs lost in the 1967 Middle East War, and hosting events in what is considered occupied territory puts salt in the wound. However, a large group of young Israelis inflamed the situation after video surfaced of them chanting “Death to Arabs!“
Their actions were widely condemned, including by Defense Minister Yair Lapid, who said, “The fact that there are extremists for whom the Israeli flag represents hate and racism is abominable and intolerable.” He added, “It is incomprehensible how one can hold an Israeli flag in one’s hand and shout ‘Death to Arabs’ at the same time.”
The Palestinian Authority, the government of the West Bank, said that there could be ‘dangerous repercussions” because of Tuesday’s right-wing march.
Despite the small rise in hostilities posed by Tuesday’s march and subsequent responses by Hamas and Israel, their ceasefire remains.
See what others are saying: (NPR) (The Wall Street Journal) (BBC)
India Is Investigating Fake COVID-19 Tests That May Have Fueled Outbreaks
Private facilities testing at a religious festival in April faked at least 100,000 negative tests, leading the public to believe the event wasn’t a super spreader.
Kumbh Mela Super Spreader Event
Authorities in India said Tuesday that they are investigating COVID-19 testing efforts carried out by private facilities during a major religious festival in Uttarakhand state this past April, which led to hundreds of thousands of fake negative test results.
The religious festival, Kumbh Mela, is among the most widely attended events in the world and millions arrived for the celebrations despite health authorities warning that it could become a super spreader event. Pilgrims weren’t deterred as local politicians praised the safety of the event and encouraged people to come without masks. In the end, the return home by festival goers is believed to have led to the largest outbreak of COVID-19 in the world, with new daily cases rising above 400,000 through April and May.
At the time, however, reported positive cases from those at the festival were shockingly low. One district in Haridwar, where part of the festival takes place, reported that out of 251,000 tests carried out locally during Kumbh Mela, only 2,273 were positive. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the state and across India, infections were upwards of 10% of those tested, leading experts to doubt the festival’s results
The narrative that India’s large outbreak wasn’t fueled by Kumbh Mela began to fall apart after a man from neighboring Punjab received a negative COVID-19 test from a private testing facility in Uttarakhand. The private test showed that during his time at the Kumbh Mela festival, he was negative despite never actually attended the festival.
Last week, he complained to the Indian Council of Medical Research, who took the situation seriously and asked local authorities to open an investigation into the matter. Preliminary findings from the investigation show that the situation is possibly worse than predicted. Authorities found that one company testing at the festival forged about a fourth of their results, meaning at least 100,000 tests were faked.
As investigators search the books, they’re finding that private clinics filled testing logs up by putting down random names, numbers, and addresses and sending those people negative test results. The clinics would then use the inflated numbers to charge local authorities more for their services.
Clinics also engaged in other scams, such as using the same unique ID code from a negative antigen test, meant for a single individual, for multiple “recipients.” In one instance, according to Times of India, a single test ID number was used for 700 people.
Because of these findings, Uttarakhand has stopped paying dozens of private testing facilities as it investigates further.
COVID-19 cases in India have fallen drastically in the last month after spiking to over 400,000 new cases every day partially because of Kumbh Mela. More than 377,000 people have died due to COVID-10 in India to date, though many believe authorities are underreporting deaths.