Roman Protasevich: A Belarus Activist Who ‘Refused to Live in Fear’

WARSAW — Since his teenage years as a rebellious highschool scholar in Belarus and persevering with into his 20s whereas in exile overseas, Roman Protasevich confronted so many threats from the nation’s safety equipment — of violent beatings, jail, punishment towards relations — that “we all sort of got used to them,” a fellow exiled dissident recalled.

So, regardless of his being branded a terrorist by Belarus late final yr — a capital offense — Mr. Protasevich was not significantly nervous when he set off for Greece from Lithuania, the place he had been dwelling, earlier this month to attend a convention and take a brief trip together with his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.

But that sense of safety was shattered on Sunday when they were snatched by Belarus safety officers on the tarmac at Minsk National Airport after a MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to intercept his industrial flight house to Lithuania from Greece. Mr. Protasevich, 26, now faces the vengeance of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the 66-year-old Belarusian chief from whom he once received a scholarship for presented college students however has since defied with unflinching zeal.

In a brief video launched on Monday by the authorities in Belarus, Mr. Protasevich confessed — underneath duress, his mates say — to participating in the group of “mass unrest” final yr in Minsk, the Belarus capital. That is the federal government’s time period for weeks of huge street protests after Mr. Lukashenko, in energy since 1994, declared a landslide re-election victory in an August election broadly dismissed as openly rigged.

Stispan Putsila, the man dissident who described the ambiance round Mr. Protasevich and the co-founder of opposition social media channels that Mr. Protasevich used final yr to assist mobilize avenue protests, mentioned he had spoken to his good friend and colleague earlier than his departure for Greece concerning the potential dangers.

They agreed, he mentioned, that it was greatest to keep away from flying over Belarus, Russia or some other state that cooperated with Mr. Lukashenko, however that flights between two European Union nations, Lithuania and Greece, ought to be protected.

He added that Mr. Protasevich may not have realized that the Ryanair flight he boarded in Athens on Sunday morning would fly over the western fringe of Belarus, a route that opened the best way for Mr. Lukashenko to perform what European leaders condemned as a “state-sponsored hijacking.”

That one thing was amiss turned clear on the airport in Athens, when Mr. Protasevich seen a person he assumed to be a Belarus safety agent making an attempt to take images of him and his journey paperwork on the check-in counter.

Taking fright, nevertheless, was not in his character, Mr. Putsila mentioned in an interview on the workplace of Nexta, the opposition news organization the place Mr. Protasevich established himself as considered one of Mr. Lukashenko’s best and unbending critics.

“By his character Roman has always been very resolute,” Mr. Putsila mentioned. “He refused to live in fear.”

Since Mr. Lukashenko took energy in Belarus in 1994, nevertheless, that has been a really perilous proposition.

Mr. Protasevich has been resisting his nation’s tyranny since he was 16, when he first witnessed what he described because the “disgusting” brutality of Mr. Lukashenko’s rule. That started a private journey that will flip a gifted scholar at a science highschool in Minsk into an avowed enemy of a authorities that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2005 called “the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe.”

Mr. Protasevich was raised in an outlying district of Minsk in one of many metropolis’s nameless, concrete high-rises by a father who was a army officer and a mom who taught math at a military academy. He studied at a prestigious highschool and gained an award in a Russian science contest.

But in the summer season after 10th grade, Mr. Protasevich was detained by the police whereas sitting on a park bench with a good friend watching a so-called “clapping protest,” when a flash mob clapped to present opposition to the federal government, with out truly uttering any forbidden statements. Mr. Protasevich was simply watching, Natalia Protasevich, his mom, mentioned in an interview.

“For the first time I saw all the dirt that is happening in our country,” he mentioned in a 2011 video posted on YouTube . “Just as an example: Five huge OMON riot police officers beat women. A mother with her child was thrown into a police van. It was disgusting. After that everything changed fundamentally.”

A letter from the safety providers to his highschool adopted. He was expelled and residential educated for six months, as no different college would take him, his mom mentioned.

The household finally negotiated a take care of the Ministry of Education. Mr. Protasevich may attend college, although solely an peculiar one, not the elite lyceum he had been enrolled in earlier than, however provided that his mom resigned from her educating job on the military academy.

“Imagine being a 16-year-old and being expelled from school,” Ms. Protasevich mentioned. “It was this incident, this injustice, this insult,” that drove him into the political opposition, she mentioned. “That is how he began his activism as a 16-year-old.”

Mr. Protasevich studied journalism at Belarusian State University however once more bumped into bother with the authorities. Unable to end his diploma, he labored as a contract reporter for quite a lot of opposition-leaning publications. Frequently detained and jailed for brief intervals, he determined to transfer to Poland, working for 10 months in Warsaw with Mr. Putsila and others on the Nexta group disseminating movies, leaked paperwork and information reviews important of Mr. Lukashenko.

Convinced that his work would have extra affect if he have been inside Belarus, Mr. Protasevich returned in 2019 to Minsk. But the political local weather had solely darkened there as Mr. Lukashenko equipped for a presidential election in 2020.

In November 2019, the police in Belarus detained a fellow dissident journalist, Vladimir Chudentsov, on what have been denounced as trumped up drug charges as he was making an attempt to cross the border into Poland.

Sensing severe bother forward, Mr. Protasevich determined to flee. On quick discover, carrying solely a backpack, in accordance to his mom, he once more left for Poland, Belarus’s western neighbor with a big inhabitants of exiles who had fled Mr. Lukashenko’s rule.

His mother and father adopted him there final summer season to keep away from arrest after safety brokers pressured neighbors to communicate with the mother and father about encouraging their son to return to Belarus, the place he confronted sure detention.

Mr. Protasevich stayed put in Warsaw, changing into a key opposition determine together with Mr. Putsila at Nexta, posting common reviews on the social media web site Telegram. Mr. Putsila described their work as “activist journalism,” however added that Mr. Lukashenko had left no house for conventional journalism by shutting down any outlet inside Belarus that did greater than parrot the federal government line.

Working from an condominium in central Warsaw close to the Polish Parliament, Mr. Protasevich moved additional away from conventional journalism after the disputed presidential election final August, taking an energetic position in organizing avenue protests by way of Nexta’s account on Telegram.

“He was more interested in organizing street action” than disseminating information, recalled Mr. Putsila, who additionally goes by the title Stepan Svetlov, an alias. “I would not say he was more radical, but he definitely became more resolute.”

Mr. Protasevich’s work crossed into the realm of political activism, not solely reporting on the protests but in addition planning them. “We’re journalists, but we also have to do something else,” he mentioned in an interview final yr. “No one else is left. The opposition leaders are in prison.” Mr. Putsila mentioned that Mr. Protasevich by no means advocated violence, solely peaceable protests.

In September final yr, Mr. Protasevich left Poland for neighboring Lithuania to be part of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the principal opposition candidate in the August election who had been pressured to flee. With Mr. Lukashenko’s different essential rivals in detention, Ms. Tikhanovskaya had turn out to be the primary voice of the Belarus opposition.

In November, prosecutors in Belarus formally charged Mr. Protasevich underneath a regulation that bans the group of protests that violate “social order.” The safety providers additionally put him on an inventory of accused terrorists.

But Mr. Protasevich felt protected in the European Union, and even took to mocking the costs towards him in his homeland.

“After the Belarusian government identified me as a terrorist, I received more congratulations than ever in my entire life for a birthday,” he informed Nashe Nive, a Belarusian information web site.

Mr. Putsila mentioned he was shocked that Mr. Lukashenko would drive a industrial airliner to land simply to arrest a youthful critic however, with the advantage of hindsight, thinks the operation mustn’t have come as an enormous shock. The autocrat, he mentioned, needed to present that “we will reach you not only in Belarus but wherever you are. He has always tried to terrify.”

A measure of that was that when the aircraft was pressured to land in Minsk on Sunday, Belarus safety brokers arrested not solely Mr. Protasevich however Ms. Sapega, 23. Ms. Sapega, a law student on the European Humanities University in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, appeared to have been arrested over her affiliation. She was not recognized to be a goal in her personal proper. Her lawyer mentioned Wednesday she can be jailed for at the least two months and face a felony trial.

Mr. Putsila famous that Nexta had obtained so many threatening letters and abusive telephone calls that Polish law enforcement officials stand everlasting guard on the stairwell main to the workplace.

“The Lukashenko regime considers Roman one of its main enemies,” he mentioned. “Maybe it is right.”

Another colleague, Ekaterina Yerusalimskaya, informed the information service that she and Mr. Protasevich as soon as seen a mysterious man tailing them in Poland, and reported it to the police. Still, Mr. Protasevich remained nonchalant. “He calmed himself by saying nobody would touch us, otherwise it would be an international scandal,” Ms. Yerusalimskaya mentioned.

Mr. Protasevich’s mom mentioned she nervous about his security however, breaking down in tears as she contemplated her son’s destiny after his arrest in Minsk, added: “We believe justice will prevail. We believe all this terror will pass. We believe political prisoners will be freed. And we are very proud of our son.”

Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting from Moscow.

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