Only 26, Belarus dissident arrested after plane diversion has spent a decade fighting oppression
Only 26, Roman Protasevich has been part of the Belarusian political opposition for over a decade and long feared the authorities would try to abduct him, even though he was living abroad. But even he couldn’t imagine just how far they would go.
Protasevich, a dissident journalist who ran a channel on a messaging app used to organize demonstrations against the iron-fisted rule of President Alexander Lukashenko, left his homeland in 2019 to try to escape the reach of the Belarusian KGB and ended up in Lithuania. He was charged in absentia for inciting riots, which carries a sentence of 15 years in prison.
As he was returning Sunday to Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, from Greece with his girlfriend aboard a Ryanair jet, Belarusian flight controllers told the crew to divert to the Belarusian capital Minsk, citing a bomb threat. Lukashenko sent a fighter jet to escort the plane.
When it became apparent where the plane was heading, a clearly shaken Protasevich told fellow passengers that he feared execution in Belarus, which still metes out capital punishment. He was arrested upon landing.
Protasevich was put on a list of people whom Belarus considers terrorists, which could bring the death penalty. He had even joked about it before his arrest, using morbid humor on his Twitter account to describe himself as “the first journalist-terrorist in history.”
Belarus was known as a sleepy place dating to its days as a Soviet nation, with few demonstrations and a population that has endured Lukashenko’s repressive rule for more than a quarter-century. Protasevich and other dissidents of his generation sought to change that.
Thousands of Belarusians who have fled a brutal crackdown on dissent are shocked by the forced landing of a flight to arrest an opposition journalist.
“He has succeeded in waking up Belarusians, connecting the discontent that was smoldering within the society with the new technologies, which led to unprecedented rallies and provoked the dictator’s anger,” said Franak Viachorka, a longtime friend.
After the plane’s forced landing in Minsk, which outraged Western leaders who described it as akin to air piracy and hijacking, the European Union barred Belarusian airlines from its airspace and airports, and advised its carriers to skirt Belarus. It is weighing other sanctions that could target top Belarusian companies.
On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin warmly welcomed Lukashenko for talks on forging closer ties amid Minsk’s bruising showdown with the European Union. Lukashenko has found himself increasingly isolated since flight controllers told the Ryanair crew to land in Minsk.
At the start of his talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, with Putin, Lukashenko ranted about the EU sanctions, describing them as an attempt to reignite the opposition protests that followed his reelection to a sixth term in August, a vote that was widely rejected as rigged. Putin appeared relaxed and invited Lukashenko for a swim, while the Belarusian leader looked tense as he launched a long rant accusing the West of being perfidious and hypocritical.
In an emotional tirade, the 66-year-old Belarusian leader bemoaned the EU sanctions against the Belarusian flag carrier, Belavia, pointing to its role in carrying “thousands and thousands” of travelers from EU nations and the U.S. who were stranded at the start of the pandemic.
“They have punished the Belavia staff who have helped evacuate thousands of their people!” Lukashenko exclaimed. “What an abomination!”
On Friday, the mayor of a district in Romania’s capital, Bucharest, announced support for a proposal to rename a street, where the Belarus Embassy is located, for the young Protasevich.
When he was 16, Protasevich became a member of the Young Front, a youth organization that helped organize anti-Lukashenko protests after the 2010 election. He was detained by police several times and eventually expelled from his high school in Minsk.
Detainees swept up in protest against Belarus president describe harrowing jailhouse abuse. Major rights group deems some of it torture.
As a journalism student, he worked for the Belarusian service of the U.S.-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other outlets.
Protasevich joined protests in 2014 in neighboring Ukraine, whose Moscow-leaning president was ousted. He sustained an injury in a clash with police. He was wounded again the next year during fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Lukashenko and other Belarusian officials alleged that Protasevich fought as a “mercenary” in eastern Ukraine, but Andriy Biletsky, who led the Azov volunteer battalion in the region, insisted Protasevich was working as a journalist.
Protasevich was expelled from Belarusian State University in 2018 as punishment for his cooperation with independent media, and he left the country the following year amid growing official pressure.
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He shot to fame last year when he and another young journalist, Stsiapan Putsila, set up a channel on the Telegram messaging app called Nexta, which sounds like the word for “somebody” in Belarusian. It became immensely popular as massive protests swept Belarus after Lukashenko’s reelection in August.
The Nexta channel boasted nearly 2 million subscribers in the nation of 9.3 million and was an important tool in mounting the demonstrations, the largest of which drew up to 200,000 people. It provided information about the location of protests, gave directions for bypassing security cordons, and carried photos, video and other content from users about the police crackdown.
“We have become a voice for every Belarusian,” Protasevich said at the time. He said Nexta had only four employees who worked 20 hours a day.
Viachorka said that, even in the most desperate situations, Protasevich “would tell Belarusians not to give up. Lukashenko targeted him because he was so visible, brave and bright.”
Belarus’ isolation is deepening as commercial planes avoid its airspace and the European Union works up new sanctions.
Infuriated Belarus authorities labeled Nexta as “extremist,” a designation that carries criminal charges against anyone who shares its materials on the internet. Protasevich and Putsila were charged with inciting mass disturbances and fanning social hatred.
In an interview in Warsaw with the Associated Press, Putsila said this week that there have been “thousands of threats that our office will be blown up, that all of us will be shot.”
After leaving Nexta last fall, Protasevich moved to Lithuania and launched another Telegram channel called Brain Belarus. His 23-year-old Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who was arrested with him Sunday, was studying at a Vilnius university.
Protasevich knew the risks of his activism, even living abroad. Fearing abduction, he frequently changed his residence and tried to avoid walking alone late at night.
Despite the threats and concerns about the Belarusian authorities, Putsila said he was shocked by Lukashenko’s move to divert the plane. “The regime has started doing unthinkable things that are against law and logic,” he said.
In a speech Wednesday, Lukashenko accused Protasevich of fomenting a “bloody rebellion” in Belarus, in conjunction with foreign spy agencies.
Protasevich appeared after his arrest in a video from detention that was broadcast on Belarusian state TV. Speaking rapidly and in a monotone, he said he was confessing to staging mass disturbances.
Watching from Poland, where they now live, his parents said the confession seemed to be coerced. His mother, Natalia Protasevich, said her son’s nose appeared to have been broken, and it looked as if makeup had been applied to cover facial bruises. She made an emotional appeal Thursday for help in getting her son freed.
Poll workers in Belarus are coming forward with details of vote-rigging in the Aug. 9 election that has kept President Alexander Lukashenko in power.
Earlier this month, the government retaliated against Protasevich‘s father, a retired military officer, stripping him and dozens of other opposition-minded officers of their ranks.
Viachorka, Protasevich‘s friend, said that the young activist “feared getting into the KGB’s hands” and that they once even talked about a scenario in which the security force commandeered an aircraft. But they quickly dismissed it.
“We were joking once, discussing what we would do if the KGB gets us,” Viachorka said. “For example, if they hijack a plane. But he couldn’t believe that such a thing could happen, dismissing it as the stuff from movies, from Hollywood.”
Karmanau writes for the Associated Press. AP’s Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report.
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