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The New York Times

Roman Protasevich: a Belarusian activist who refused to live in fear

WARSAW, Poland – From his youth as a rebellious high school student in Belarus to his 20s in exile abroad, Roman Protasevich has faced so many threats from the country’s security apparatus – from violent beatings, jails and punishments against family members, “We are all somehow attached to each other used to them, “recalled one exiled dissident. Although Protasevich was branded a terrorist by Belarus late last year – a capital offense – he wasn’t particularly concerned when he left for Greece earlier this month from Lithuania, where he had lived, to attend a conference and take a short vacation his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega. However, that feeling of security was shattered on Sunday when they were kidnapped by Belarusian security officials on the tarmac at Minsk National Airport after a MiG-29 fighter plane was jumbled up to intercept its commercial flight home from Greece to Lithuania. Protasevich, 26, is now facing the vengeance of President Alexander Lukashenko, the 66-year-old Belarusian leader who once received a scholarship for gifted students but has since resisted with unwavering zeal. Sign up for the New York Times morning newsletter. In a short video released on Monday by the Belarusian authorities, Protasevich admitted – under duress, his friends say – that he had participated in the organization of “mass riots” in Minsk last year. the Belarusian capital. This is the government’s term in office for weeks of major street protests after Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, announced a landslide re-election victory in an August election that was widely dismissed as brazenly rigged. Stispan Putsila, the dissident who described the atmosphere around Protasevich and co-founder of the opposition social media channels Protasevich used to mobilize street protests last year, said he had discussed the potential with his friend and colleague before leaving for Greece spoken risks. They agreed that it was best not to fly via Belarus, Russia or any other state that works with Lukashenko, but that flights between two EU countries, Lithuania and Greece, should be safe. He added that Protasevich may not have understood that the Ryanair flight he boarded in Athens on Sunday morning would fly over the western edge of Belarus, a route that paved the way for Lukashenko to carry out what the European heads of state – and condemned heads of government as “state-sponsored kidnapping”. “Something was wrong became clear at Athens airport when Protasevich noticed a man who he suspected was a Belarusian security agent who was trying to photograph him and his travel documents at the check-in counter. However, horror was not in his character, Putsila said in an interview at the office of Nexta, the opposition news organization, in which Protasevich established himself as one of Lukashenko’s most effective and indomitable critics. “Because of his character, Roman was always very determined,” said Putsila. “He refused to live in fear.” However, since Lukashenko took power in Belarus in 1994, it has been a very dangerous affair. Protasevich has been resisting the tyranny of his country since he was 16 when he first witnessed what he described as the “disgusting” brutality of Lukashenko’s rule. This marked the beginning of a personal journey that would turn a gifted science high school student in Minsk into an avowed enemy of a government that Foreign Minister Condoleezza Rice described in 2005 as “the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe”. Protasevich grew up on the outskirts of Minsk in one of the city’s anonymous, concrete high-rise buildings by a father who was a military officer and a mother who taught mathematics at a military academy. He graduated from a prestigious high school and won an award in a Russian science competition. But in the summer after 10th grade, Protasevich was arrested by the police while he was sitting on a park bench with a friend and watching a so-called “gossip protest” when a flash mob clapped to show resistance to the government without actually saying anything prohibited Statement. Protasevich was just watching, said Natalia Protasevich, his mother, in an interview. “For the first time I saw all the filth going on in our country,” he said in a video posted on YouTube in 2011. “Just as an example: five huge OMON riot police beat women. A mother with her child was thrown into a police car. It was disgusting. After that everything changed fundamentally. “A letter from security to his high school followed. He was expelled for six months and raised at home in a way that no other school would accept, his mother said. The family eventually negotiated a deal with the Department of Education. Roman could go to school, if only an ordinary one, not the elite high school he was previously enrolled in, but only when his mother stepped down from her teaching job at the military academy. “Imagine you are 16 years old and you are expelled from school,” said Natalia Protasevich. “It was this incident, this injustice, this insult,” that drove him into the political opposition, she said. “That’s how he started his activism when he was 16.” Roman Protasevich studied journalism at the Belarusian State University, but again ran into trouble with the authorities. Unable to graduate, he worked as a freelance reporter for a variety of opposition publications. He was often jailed and detained for short periods and decided to move to Poland. He worked in Warsaw for 10 months with Putsila and other members of the Nexta team, distributing videos, leaked documents and news reports criticizing Lukashenko. Protasevich was convinced that his work would have more impact if he were in Belarus and returned to Minsk in 2019. The political climate there had only darkened when Lukashenko was preparing for a presidential election in 2020. In November 2019, police in Belarus arrested another dissident journalist, Vladimir Chudentsov, while crossing the border into Poland. Protasevich felt serious problems and decided to flee. For a short time, according to his mother, he traveled to Poland, Belarus’ western neighbor, with a large number of exiles who had fled Lukashenko’s rule. His parents followed him there last summer to avoid arrest after security forces pressured neighbors to speak to parents about encouraging their son to return to Belarus, where he was subjected to some incarceration. Protasevich stayed in Warsaw and, along with Putsila in Nexta, became an important opposition figure. He regularly posted reports on the Telegram social media site. Putsila described her work as “activist journalism,” but added that Lukashenko had left no room for traditional journalism by closing every branch in Belarus that mimicked more than the government line. Protasevich worked in an apartment in central Warsaw near the Polish Parliament and moved further away from traditional journalism after the controversial presidential election last August. He took an active role in organizing street protests over Nexta’s report on Telegram. “He was more interested in organizing street actions” than spreading the news, recalled Putsila, who also goes by the pseudonym Stepan Svetlov. “I wouldn’t say he was more radical, but he definitely got more determined.” Protasevich’s work moved into the realm of political activism and not only reported on the protests but also planned them. “We are journalists, but we have to do something else,” he said in an interview last year. “Otherwise there is nobody left. The opposition leaders are in jail. “Putsila said Protasevich never endorsed violence, only peaceful protests. In September last year, Protasevich left Poland for neighboring Lithuania to join Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the main opposition candidate in the August elections who had been forced to flee. With Lukashenko’s other main competitors in custody, Tikhanovskaya had become the main voice of the Belarusian opposition. In November, prosecutors in Belarus officially indicted Protasevich under a law prohibiting the organization of protests that violate “social order”. The security services also put him on a list of suspected terrorists. But Protasevich felt safe in the European Union and even mocked the charges against him in his homeland. “After the Belarusian government identified me as a terrorist, I received more birthday wishes than ever in my entire life,” he told Nashe Nive, a Belarusian news outlet. Putsila said he was stunned that Lukashenko would force an airliner to land just to arrest a juvenile critic, but with hindsight believes the operation shouldn’t have come as a big surprise. The autocrat, he said, wanted to show that “we will not only reach you in Belarus, but wherever you are. He always tried to scare. “When the plane had to land in Minsk on Sunday, Belarusian security forces arrested not only Protasevich, but also Sapega, 23. Sapega, a law student at the European University of Humanities in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, appeared to have been arrested for their association She was not known to be a target. Her attorney said Wednesday she would have been detained for at least two months and face criminal proceedings. Putsila noted that Nexta had received so many threatening letters and abusive phone calls that Polish police officers popped up “The Lukashenko regime sees Roman as one of its main enemies,” he said. “Maybe it is right.” Another colleague, Ekaterina Yerusalimskaya, told the intelligence service that she and Protasevich had once noticed a mysterious man chasing them in Poland and said it was the police would have. Even so, Protasevich remained nonchalant. “He calmed down by saying no one would touch us or it would be an international scandal,” said Yerusalimskaya. Protasevich’s mother said she was concerned about his safety but burst into tears as she pondered the fate of her son after his arrest in Minsk, adding: “We believe that justice will prevail. We believe that all of this terror will pass. We believe political prisoners will be released. And we are very proud of our son. “This article originally appeared in the New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company