WARSAW – From his teenage years as a rebellious high school student in Belarus and into his twenties while in exile abroad, Roman Protasevich has faced so many threats from the country’s security apparatus – violent beatings, imprisonment, punishment against members of his family – that “all of us are used to it”, remembers an exiled dissident.
So although he was labeled a terrorist by Belarus late last year – a capital crime – Mr Protasevich was not particularly worried when he left for Greece from Lithuania, where he was living earlier this month to attend a conference and take a short vacation with his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.
But that sense of security was shattered on Sunday when they were snatched by Belarusian security officials on the tarmac at Minsk National Airport after a MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to intercept its commercial flight. to Lithuania from Greece. Mr. Protasevich, 26, now faces revenge from President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the 66-year-old Belarusian leader whose he once received a scholarship for gifted students, but has since challenged with unwavering zeal.
In a short video released Monday by Belarusian authorities, Protasevich confessed – under duress, his friends say – to having participated in the organization of “mass unrest” last year in Minsk, the Belarusian capital. That’s the government’s mandate for weeks of huge street protests after Mr Lukashenko, in power since 1994, declared a landslide re-election victory in the August elections widely dismissed as brazenly rigged.
Stispan Putsila, the dissident colleague who described the atmosphere around Mr Protasevich and the co-founder of the opposition social media channels Mr Protasevich used last year to help mobilize street protests, said that he had spoken to his friend and colleague before he left for Greece about the potential risks.
They agreed, he said, that it was better to avoid flying over Belarus, Russia or any other state cooperating with Lukashenko, but that flights between two European Union countries, Lithuania and Greece, had to be sure.
He added that Mr Protasevich might not have realized that the Ryanair flight he boarded from Athens on Sunday morning would fly over the western outskirts of Belarus, a route that paved the way for Mr Lukashenko to execute this. which European leaders condemned as a “state-sponsored hijacking.”
That something was wrong became clear at Athens airport, when Mr Protasevich noticed a man he assumed to be a Belarusian security guard trying to take pictures of him and his travel documents at the check-in desk.
Being afraid, however, was not in his character, Mr Putsila said in an interview with the office of Nexta, the opposition news organization where Mr Protasevich established himself as one of the most critical critics. Lukashenko’s most effective and inflexible.
“By his character, Roman has always been very resolute,” said Putsila. “He refused to live in fear.
However, since Mr Lukashenko took power in Belarus in 1994, this has been a very perilous proposition.
Mr. Protasevich has resisted the tyranny of his country since the age of 16, when he first witnessed what he described as the “disgusting” brutality of the Lukashenko regime. It began a personal journey that would turn a gifted student at a science high school in Minsk into an avowed enemy of a government as the Secretary of State. Condoleezza Rice in 2005 called “The last real dictatorship in the heart of Europe.”
Mr Protasevich was raised in a suburb of Minsk in one of the city’s anonymous, concrete skyscrapers by a father who was a military officer and a mother who taught mathematics at an army academy. He studied at a prestigious high school and won a prize in a Russian science competition.
But in the summer after 10th grade, Mr. Protasevich was arrested by police while sitting on a park bench with a friend watching a so-called “applause demonstration,” when a flash mob applauded for demonstrating its opposition to the government, without really making any prohibited statement. Mr. Protasevich was just watching, Natalia Protasevich, his mother, said in an interview.
“For the first time, I saw all the filth that is going on in our country,” he said in 2011 video posted on YouTube . “Just as an example: five huge OMON riot police beat women. A mother with her child was thrown into a police van. It was disgusting. After that, everything fundamentally changed.
A letter from the security services to his high school followed. He was kicked out and home schooled for six months because no other school would take him, his mother said.
The family eventually negotiated an agreement with the Ministry of Education. Mr. Protasevich could attend a school, although ordinary, not the elite high school he had been enrolled in before, but only if his mother resigned from her teaching post at the army academy.
“Imagine being 16 and being kicked out of school,” Ms. Protasevich said. “It was this incident, this injustice, this insult” that pushed him into the political opposition, she said. “This is how he started his activism at the age of 16.”
Mr. Protasevich studied journalism at Belarusian State University, but again encountered problems with the authorities. Unable to complete his studies, he worked as a freelance journalist for a variety of opposition-oriented publications. Often detained and imprisoned for short periods, he decided to move to Poland, working for 10 months in Warsaw with Mr Putsila and other members of the Nexta team broadcasting videos, leaked documents and critical reporting to the with regard to Mr Lukashenko.
Convinced that his work would have more impact if he was in Belarus, Mr Protasevich returned to Minsk in 2019. But the political climate was only darkening there as Mr Lukashenko prepared for a presidential election in 2020.
In November 2019, Belarusian police arrested fellow dissident journalist Vladimir Chudentsov on denounced as false drug charges while trying to cross the border with Poland.
Sensing serious problems ahead, Mr. Protasevich decided to flee. On short notice, carrying only a backpack, according to his mother, he left for Poland, Belarus’ western neighbor with a large population of exiles who had fled Lukashenko’s regime.
His parents followed him there last summer to avoid arrest after security guards pressured neighbors to speak with parents to encourage their son to return to Belarus, where he risked some detention.
Mr Protasevich remained in Warsaw, becoming a key figure in the opposition with Mr Putsila at Nexta, regularly posting reports on the Telegram social media site. Mr Putsila called their work “activist journalism”, but added that Lukashenko left no room for mainstream journalism by shutting down any outlet in Belarus that did more than follow the government’s line.
Working from an apartment in central Warsaw near the Polish Parliament, Mr Protasevich moved away from mainstream journalism after the contested presidential election last August, taking an active role in organizing street protests through the account of Nexta on Telegram.
“He was more interested in organizing street action” than in disseminating information, recalled Mr. Putsila, also known as Stepan Svetlov, an alias. “I wouldn’t say he was more radical, but he definitely became more resolute.
Mr. Protasevich’s work entered the realm of political activism, not only reporting on protests, but also planning them. “We are journalists, but we also have to do something else,” he said in an interview last year. “No one else is left behind. The leaders of the opposition are in prison. Mr. Putsila said Mr. Protasevich never advocated violence, only peaceful protests.
In September last year, Protasevich left Poland for neighboring Lithuania to join Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the main opposition candidate in the August elections who had been forced to flee. Along with Mr. Lukashenko’s other main rivals in detention, Ms. Tikhanovskaya has become the main voice of the Belarusian opposition.
In November Belarusian prosecutors formally indicted Protasevich under a law banning the organization of demonstrations violating “social order”. The security services also put him on a list of accused terrorists.
But Mr Protasevich felt safe in the European Union and even scoffed at the charges against him in his native country.
“After the Belarusian government identified me as a terrorist, I received more congratulations than ever in my life on a birthday,” he said. Nashe Nive, a Belarusian news site.
Mr Putsila said he was stunned that Mr Lukashenko forced a commercial airliner to land just to arrest a young critic but, looking back, thinks the operation shouldn’t have been a big surprise. The autocrat, he said, wanted to show that “we will reach you not only in Belarus, but wherever you are. He always tried to terrify.
One measure of this was that when the plane was forced to land in Minsk on Sunday, Belarusian security officers arrested not only Mr. Protasevich, but 23-year-old Ms. Sapega. Ms. Sapega, a law student at the European University of Humanities in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, appears to have been arrested for her association. She was not known to be a full target. Her lawyer said on Wednesday that she would be jailed for at least two months and face a criminal trial.
Mr Putsila noted that Nexta had received so many threatening letters and abusive phone calls that Polish police were standing guard in the stairwell leading to the office.
“The Lukashenko regime considers Roman to be one of its main enemies,” he declared. “Maybe that’s right.”
Another colleague, Ekaterina Yerusalimskaya, told the Tut.by news service that she and Mr Protasevich once noticed a mysterious man following them to Poland and reported him to the police. Yet Mr. Protasevich remained nonchalant. “He calmed down by saying that no one would touch us, otherwise it would be an international scandal,” Ms. Yerusalimskaya said.
Mr Protasevich’s mother said she was concerned for his safety but, bursting into tears as she considered the fate of her son after his arrest in Minsk, added: “We believe justice will prevail. We believe all of this terror will pass. We believe that political prisoners will be released. And we are very proud of our son.
Ivan Nechepurenko contribution to reports from Moscow.