Roman Protasevich: A Belarus Activist Who ‘Refused to Stay in Worry’

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WARSAW — Since his teenage years as a rebellious highschool pupil 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 members of the family — that “all of us type of bought used to them,” a fellow exiled dissident recalled.

So, regardless of his being branded a terrorist by Belarus late final 12 months — a capital offense — Mr. Protasevich was not notably apprehensive 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 along with his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.

However that sense of safety was shattered on Sunday once they had been snatched by Belarus safety officers on the tarmac at Minsk Nationwide 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 as soon as obtained 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 — below duress, his mates say — to collaborating within the group of “mass unrest” final 12 months in Minsk, the Belarus capital. That’s the authorities’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 broadly dismissed as overtly rigged.

Stispan Putsila, the man dissident who described the environment round Mr. Protasevich and the co-founder of opposition social media channels that Mr. Protasevich used final 12 months to assist mobilize avenue protests, mentioned he had spoken to his pal and colleague earlier than his departure for Greece in regards to the potential dangers.

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

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 way in which for Mr. Lukashenko to hold out 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 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 information group the place Mr. Protasevich established himself as one in every of Mr. Lukashenko’s only and unbending critics.

“By his character Roman has all the time been very resolute,” Mr. Putsila mentioned. “He refused to reside in concern.”

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 pupil at a science highschool in Minsk into an avowed enemy of a authorities that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2005 known as “the final remaining true dictatorship within the coronary 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.

However in the summertime after tenth grade, Mr. Protasevich was detained by the police whereas sitting on a park bench with a pal watching a so-called “clapping protest,” when a flash mob clapped to indicate opposition to the federal government, with out really uttering any forbidden statements. Mr. Protasevich was simply watching, Natalia Protasevich, his mom, mentioned in an interview.

“For the primary time I noticed all of the filth that’s taking place in our nation,” he mentioned in a 2011 video posted on YouTube . “Simply for example: 5 big OMON riot cops beat girls. A mom along with her youngster was thrown right into a police van. It was disgusting. After that all the things modified basically.”

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

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

“Think about being a 16-year-old and being expelled from faculty,” Ms. Protasevich mentioned. “It was this incident, this injustice, this insult,” that drove him into the political opposition, she mentioned. “That’s how he started his activism as a 16-year-old.”

Mr. Protasevich studied journalism at Belarusian State College however once more bumped into hassle with the authorities. Unable to complete his diploma, he labored as a contract reporter for quite a lot of opposition-leaning publications. Often detained and jailed for brief durations, he determined to maneuver to Poland, working for 10 months in Warsaw with Mr. Putsila and others on the Nexta crew disseminating movies, leaked paperwork and information stories vital of Mr. Lukashenko.

Satisfied that his work would have extra influence if he had been inside Belarus, Mr. Protasevich returned in 2019 to Minsk. However 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 had been denounced as trumped up drug fees as he was attempting to cross the border into Poland.

Sensing severe hassle forward, Mr. Protasevich determined to flee. On brief discover, carrying solely a backpack, in accordance with 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 talk 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, turning 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 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 lively position in organizing avenue protests by means of Nexta’s account on Telegram.

“He was extra taken with organizing avenue motion” than disseminating information, recalled Mr. Putsila, who additionally goes by the identify Stepan Svetlov, an alias. “I might not say he was extra radical, however he undoubtedly grew to become extra resolute.”

Mr. Protasevich’s work crossed into the realm of political activism, not solely reporting on the protests but additionally planning them. “We’re journalists, however we additionally should do one thing else,” he mentioned in an interview final 12 months. “Nobody else is left. The opposition leaders are in jail.” Mr. Putsila mentioned that Mr. Protasevich by no means advocated violence, solely peaceable protests.

In September final 12 months, Mr. Protasevich left Poland for neighboring Lithuania to hitch Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the principal opposition candidate within the August election who had been compelled to flee. With Mr. Lukashenko’s different predominant 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 below a regulation that bans the group of protests that violate “social order.” The safety providers additionally put him on a listing of accused terrorists.

However Mr. Protasevich felt secure within the European Union, and even took to mocking the fees in opposition to him in his homeland.

“After the Belarusian authorities recognized me as a terrorist, I obtained extra congratulations than ever in my total life for a birthday,” he instructed Nashe Nive, a Belarusian information web site.

Mr. Putsila mentioned he was shocked that Mr. Lukashenko would power a industrial airliner to land simply to arrest a youthful critic however, with the advantage of hindsight, thinks the operation shouldn’t have come as a giant shock. The autocrat, he mentioned, wished to indicate that “we’ll attain you not solely in Belarus however wherever you’re. He has all the time tried to terrify.”

A measure of that was that when the aircraft was compelled to land in Minsk on Sunday, Belarus safety brokers arrested not solely Mr. Protasevich however Ms. Sapega, 23. Ms. Sapega, a regulation pupil on the European Humanities College in Vilnius, in 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 could be jailed for at the least two months and face a prison trial.

Mr. Putsila famous that Nexta had obtained so many threatening letters and abusive telephone calls that Polish cops stand everlasting guard on the stairwell resulting in the workplace.

“The Lukashenko regime considers Roman one in every of its predominant enemies,” he mentioned. “Possibly it’s proper.”

One other colleague, Ekaterina Yerusalimskaya, instructed 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. Nonetheless, Mr. Protasevich remained nonchalant. “He calmed himself by saying no one would contact us, in any other case it will be a global scandal,” Ms. Yerusalimskaya mentioned.

Mr. Protasevich’s mom mentioned she apprehensive about his security however, breaking down in tears as she contemplated her son’s destiny after his arrest in Minsk, added: “We imagine justice will prevail. We imagine all this terror will go. We imagine political prisoners can be freed. And we’re very happy with our son.”

Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting from Moscow.

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