For a passenger, however, the hijacking was much more worrying. Roman Protasevich, a young Belarusian dissident, rushed to retrieve his luggage and reportedly told witnesses he feared he would face the death penalty.
Protasevich, wanted on various charges in Belarus, was arrested on Sunday when the flight was forced to land in Minsk, in an incident described by some Western leaders as “a state-approved hijack.”
Barely 26 years old, Protasevich is part of a new generation of Belarusian political activists who have been catapulted to the forefront by rising public opposition to President Alexander Lukashenko’s long and repressive reign.
Franak Viacorka, who became adviser to Lukashenko’s opponent in last year’s elections, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was also on the program. Viacorka told CNN that Protasevich was extremely courageous during protests, even a minor, and had been arrested countless times.
“He was always the bravest, always on the front lines near the police,” Viacorka said. “And I was still convinced that even after jail he wouldn’t be broken. He was like the piece of iron, ready to fight. He knew what he wanted, with a strong sense of his mission.
Protasevich co-founded Telegram channel NEXTA in 2015. Its popularity exploded around last year’s election, not least because it was one of the few platforms Belarusians could access. In one week, it gained over 800,000 new subscribers and now has 1.2 million members – a huge success in a country of 9.3 million people.
Viacorka said Protasevich was an expert in combining media activism and journalism, which made him a powerful threat to the regime. “He could present information in very clear terms so that people could understand what was going on. He always challenged Lukashenko personally, so he became Lukashenko’s personal enemy.”
Not only did NEXTA quickly upload photos and videos of protests sent by eyewitnesses, it also offered advice on how to deal with security forces. And in the absence of a clear protest leader – after most of the virulent activists were detained or exiled – the channel has become a trusted source of verified information allowing protesters to coordinate their movements.
“It’s very important in a dictatorship,” Viacorka said, “because a dictatorship tries to create noise, and these Telegram channels reveal the truth and the corrupt nature of the regime.”
At the same time, Protasevich was afraid to call people on the street. He told the BBC Russian Service last year: “To a certain extent, I feel responsible for what is going on. I feel uncomfortable when I see pictures of people with holes in their bodies, partially torn limbs. Do I feel responsible for the publication in our country? Only to know if it will bring people closer to victory and the end of the dictatorship. “
Protasevich switched to another Telegram channel – Belamova – after its founder Ihar Losik was jailed last summer. Belamova is the second most popular opposition platform after NEXTA, according to other opposition figures.
A colleague from Belamova, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, told CNN: “Roman is the heart and soul of our channel and a true professional. He was able to set the processes in place in a way so that the chain can continue to work effectively in his absence. “
The person added: “We understand the risks associated with our work and expect anything. We will not allow the kidnapping of Roman to affect the work of the chain – we will only get stronger.”
Last week Protasevich visited Greece and photographed opposition leader Tikhanovskaya, an experience he described on Twitter as “incredibly cool”.
But he was also concerned about the events at home. The regime had started to take revenge on his family in Belarus. He tweeted earlier this month: “Lukashenko ordered my father to be stripped of his military rank. My father served in the military for 29 years and resigned in the fall of 2019”.
Protasevich had previously said his family had not been involved in the protest movement.
His arrest is also just the latest, albeit most dramatic, example of Belarusian authorities’ efforts to eradicate independent journalism. Last week, the country’s security forces raided the offices of the largest independent news portal – TUT.BY – and blocked its website.
Viacorka told CNN that Protasevich is “a symbol right now of what could happen to any journalist.” He estimates that there are at least 30 journalists and bloggers in prison in Belarus. “I think they will try to break Roman,” he said.
Last November Protasevich was indicted in absentia for “organizing mass riots and group actions which seriously violate public order”, charges which could lead to 15 years in prison. He is also on a government wanted list for terrorism.
Viacorka is concerned that this could be broadened to include terrorism-related charges, potentially leading to a 25-year prison sentence.
Protasevich himself fears something even worse. Another passenger on Sunday’s flight told AFP news agency that when the plane landed in Minsk, “he just turned to the people and said he was facing the death penalty.”
“Although he is currently wanted as a suspect under Article 293 (maximum sentence of 15 years in prison), it is possible that he will be charged with a more serious crime, and the death penalty is not excluded. But knowing the conditions in Belarusian in prisons, I would be worried about his mistreatment, ”Kanstantsin Dzehtsiarou, professor of human rights law at the University of Liverpool, told CNN.
Last week another political activist – Vitold Ashurok, 50 – died in prison while serving a sentence for participating in last year’s protests. Ashurok died of cardiac arrest, according to Belarusian media. He was sentenced in January after a court found him guilty of gross violations of public order and violence against the police.