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

WARSAW, Poland — Since his teenage years as a rebellious high school student in Belarus and continuing into his 20s while in exile abroad, Roman Protasevich faced so many threats from the country’s security apparatus — of violent beatings, jail, punishment against family members — that “we all sort of got used to them,” a fellow exiled dissident recalled. So, despite his being branded a terrorist by Belarus late last year — a capital offense — Protasevich was not particularly worried when he set off for Greece from Lithuania, where he had been 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 Belarus security officials on the tarmac at Minsk National Airport after a MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to intercept his commercial flight home to Lithuania from Greece. Protasevich, 26, now faces the vengeance of President Alexander Lukashenko, the 66-year-old Belarusian leader from whom he once received a scholarship for gifted students but has since defied with unflinching zeal. Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times In a short video released on Monday by the authorities in Belarus, Protasevich confessed — under duress, his friends say — to taking part in the organization of “mass unrest” last year in Minsk, the Belarus capital. That is the government’s term for weeks of huge street protests after Lukashenko, in power since 1994, declared a landslide reelection victory in an August election widely dismissed as brazenly rigged. Stispan Putsila, the fellow dissident who described the atmosphere around Protasevich and the co-founder of opposition social media channels that Protasevich used last year to help mobilize street protests, said he had spoken to his friend and colleague before his departure for Greece about the potential risks. They agreed, he said, that it was best to avoid flying over Belarus, Russia or any other state that cooperated with Lukashenko, but that flights between two European Union countries, Lithuania and Greece, should be safe. He added that Protasevich might not have realized that the Ryanair flight he boarded in Athens on Sunday morning would fly over the western edge of Belarus, a route that opened the way for Lukashenko to carry out what European leaders condemned as a “state-sponsored hijacking.” That something was amiss became clear at the airport in Athens, when Protasevich noticed a man he assumed to be a Belarus security agent trying to take photographs of him and his travel documents at the check-in counter. Taking fright, however, was not in his character, Putsila said in an interview at the office of Nexta, the opposition news organization where Protasevich established himself as one of Lukashenko’s most effective and unbending critics. “By his character Roman has always been very resolute,” Putsila said. “He refused to live in fear.” Since Lukashenko took power in Belarus in 1994, however, that has been a very perilous proposition. Protasevich has been resisting his country’s tyranny since he was 16, when he first witnessed what he described as the “disgusting” brutality of Lukashenko’s rule. That began a personal journey that would turn a gifted student at a science high school in Minsk into an avowed enemy of a government that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2005 called “the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe.” Protasevich was raised in an outlying district of Minsk in one of the city’s anonymous, concrete high-rises by a father who was a military officer and a mother who taught math at an army academy. He studied at a prestigious high school and won an award in a Russian science contest. But in the summer after 10th grade, Protasevich was detained by the police while sitting on a park bench with a friend watching a so-called “clapping protest,” when a flash mob clapped to show opposition to the government, without actually uttering any forbidden statements. Protasevich was just watching, Natalia Protasevich, his mother, said in an interview. “For the first time I saw all the dirt that is happening in our country,” he said 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 security services to his high school followed. He was expelled and home educated for six months, as no other school would take him, his mother said. The family eventually negotiated a deal with the Ministry of Education. Roman could attend school, though only an ordinary one, not the elite lyceum he had been enrolled in before, but only if his mother resigned from her teaching job at the army academy. “Imagine being a 16-year-old and being expelled from school,” Natalia Protasevich said. “It was this incident, this injustice, this insult,” that drove him into the political opposition, she said. “That is how he began his activism as a 16-year-old.” Roman Protasevich studied journalism at Belarusian State University but again ran into trouble with the authorities. Unable to finish his degree, he worked as a freelance reporter for a variety of opposition-leaning publications. Frequently detained and jailed for short periods, he decided to move to Poland, working for 10 months in Warsaw with Putsila and others on the Nexta team disseminating videos, leaked documents and news reports critical of Lukashenko. Convinced that his work would have more impact if he were inside Belarus, Protasevich returned in 2019 to Minsk. But the political climate had only darkened there as Lukashenko geared up for a presidential election in 2020. In November 2019, the police in Belarus detained a fellow dissident journalist, Vladimir Chudentsov, on what were denounced as trumped up drug charges as he was trying to cross the border into Poland. Sensing serious trouble ahead, Protasevich decided to flee. On short notice, carrying only a backpack, according to his mother, he again left for Poland, Belarus’ western neighbor with a large population of exiles who had fled Lukashenko’s rule. His parents followed him there last summer to avoid arrest after security agents pressured neighbors to speak with the parents about encouraging their son to return to Belarus, where he faced certain detention. Protasevich stayed put in Warsaw, becoming a key opposition figure along with Putsila at Nexta, posting regular reports on the social media site Telegram. Putsila described their work as “activist journalism,” but added that Lukashenko had left no space for traditional journalism by shutting down any outlet inside Belarus that did more than parrot the government line. Working from an apartment in central Warsaw near the Polish Parliament, Protasevich moved further away from traditional journalism after the disputed presidential election last August, taking an active role in organizing street protests through Nexta’s account on Telegram. “He was more interested in organizing street action” than disseminating news, recalled Putsila, who also goes b
y the name Stepan Svetlov, an alias. “I would not say he was more radical, but he definitely became more resolute.” Protasevich’s work crossed into the realm of political activism, not only reporting on the protests but also planning them. “We’re journalists, but we also have to do something else,” he said in an interview last year. “No one else is left. The opposition leaders are in prison.” Putsila said that Protasevich never advocated violence, only peaceful protests. In September last year, Protasevich left Poland for neighboring Lithuania to join Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the principal opposition candidate in the August election who had been forced to flee. With Lukashenko’s other main rivals in detention, Tikhanovskaya had become the main voice of the Belarus opposition. In November, prosecutors in Belarus formally charged Protasevich under a law that bans the organization of protests that violate “social order.” The security services also put him on a list of accused terrorists. But Protasevich felt safe in the European Union, and even took to mocking the charges against 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 told Nashe Nive, a Belarusian news site. Putsila said he was stunned that Lukashenko would force a commercial airliner to land just to arrest a youthful critic but, with the benefit of hindsight, thinks the operation should not have come as a big surprise. The autocrat, he said, wanted to show 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 plane was forced to land in Minsk on Sunday, Belarus security agents arrested not only Protasevich but Sapega, 23. Sapega, a law student at the European Humanities University in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, appeared to have been arrested over her association. She was not known to be a target in her own right. Her lawyer said Wednesday she would be jailed for at least two months and face a criminal trial. Putsila noted that Nexta had received so many threatening letters and abusive phone calls that Polish police officers stand permanent guard on the stairwell leading to the office. “The Lukashenko regime considers Roman one of its main enemies,” he said. “Maybe it is right.” Another colleague, Ekaterina Yerusalimskaya, told the news service that she and Protasevich once noticed a mysterious man tailing them in Poland, and reported it to the police. Still, Protasevich remained nonchalant. “He calmed himself by saying nobody would touch us, otherwise it would be an international scandal,” Yerusalimskaya said. Protasevich’s mother said she worried about his safety but, breaking down in tears as she contemplated her son’s fate 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.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company