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 in opposition to 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 notably anxious when he set off for Greece from Lithuania, the place he had been residing, earlier this month to attend a convention and take a brief trip along with his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.

But that sense of safety was shattered on Sunday once they had been 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 dwelling 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 as soon as acquired 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 — beneath duress, his mates say — to collaborating in the group of “mass unrest” final yr in Minsk, the Belarus capital. That is the federal government’s time period for weeks of giant avenue protests after Mr. Lukashenko, in energy since 1994, declared a landslide re-election victory in an August election extensively dismissed as overtly rigged.

Stispan Putsila, the guy 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, stated he had spoken to his buddy and colleague earlier than his departure for Greece concerning the potential dangers.

Opposition supporters took to the streets in Minsk, final yr, after President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko declared a landslide re-election victory.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

They agreed, he stated, that it was greatest to keep away from flying over Belarus, Russia or another state that cooperated with Mr. Lukashenko, however that flights between two European Union international locations, Lithuania and Greece, needs 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 grew to become clear on the airport in Athens, when Mr. Protasevich seen a person he assumed to be a Belarus safety agent attempting to take pictures of him and his journey paperwork on the check-in counter.

Taking fright, nonetheless, was not in his character, Mr. Putsila stated in an interview on the workplace of Nexta, the opposition information group the place Mr. Protasevich established himself as considered one of Mr. Lukashenko’s only and unbending critics.

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

Since Mr. Lukashenko took energy in Belarus in 1994, nonetheless, 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 may 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 known as “the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe.”

The aircraft which was carrying Mr. Protasevich after it landed in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sunday.Credit…Andrius Sytas/Reuters

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

“For the first time I saw all the dirt that is happening in our country,” he stated 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 companies to his highschool adopted. He was expelled and residential educated for six months, as no different college would take him, his mom stated.

The household finally negotiated a take care of the Ministry of Education. Mr. Protasevich may attend college, although solely an extraordinary 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 stated. “It was this incident, this injustice, this insult,” that drove him into the political opposition, she stated. “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 hassle with the authorities. Unable to end his diploma, he labored as a contract reporter for a wide range 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 stories important of Mr. Lukashenko.

Convinced that his work would have extra affect if he had 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.

“By his character Roman has always been very resolute,” Stispan Putsila stated. Credit…Anna Liminowicz for The New York Times

In November 2019, the police in Belarus detained a fellow dissident journalist, Vladimir Chudentsov, on what had been denounced as trumped up drug expenses as he was attempting to cross the border into Poland.

Sensing severe hassle 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 time 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 stories on the social media web site Telegram. Mr. Putsila described their work as “activist journalism,” however added that Mr. Lukashenko had left no area 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 Nexta’s account on Telegram.

“He was more interested in organizing street action” than disseminating information, recalled Mr. Putsila, who additionally goes by the identify 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 stated in an interview final yr. “No one else is left. The opposition leaders are in prison.” Mr. Putsila stated 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 foremost rivals in detention, Ms. Tikhanovskaya had turn into the primary voice of the Belarus opposition.

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

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the exiled Belarusian opposition chief, in Geneva in March. In September final yr, Mr. Protasevich left Poland for Lithuania to be part of Ms. Tikhanovskaya.Credit…Pierre Albouy/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But Mr. Protasevich felt protected in the European Union, and even took to mocking the costs in opposition to 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 stated he was surprised that Mr. Lukashenko would drive a industrial airliner to land simply to arrest a youthful critic however, with the good thing about hindsight, thinks the operation shouldn’t have come as a giant shock. The autocrat, he stated, wished 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 regulation scholar 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 stated Wednesday she could be jailed for a minimum of two months and face a felony trial.

A younger lady who recognized herself as Ms. Sapega, who had not been seen in public since her arrest, appeared in a video posted on Twitter on Tuesday by NTV, a state-controlled Russian tv channel.

The lady stated she had been on the identical aircraft as Mr. Protasevich to Lithuania, the place she stated she served as an editor for the “Black Book of Belarus,” a Telegram channel that focuses on exposing police brutality and is banned by Belarus as an “extremist” group. Clearly talking beneath duress in Russian, she confessed to publishing the non-public data of Interior Ministry officers, a felony offense in Belarus.

Mr. Putsila famous that Nexta had acquired so many threatening letters and abusive cellphone calls that Polish cops stand everlasting guard on the stairwell main to the workplace.

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

Another colleague, Ekaterina Yerusalimskaya, informed the Tut.by 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 stated.

Mr. Protasevich’s mom stated she anxious 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.