Exiled Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich spent years escaping the ire of his government, but it was a return flight from a sunny vacation in Greece with his girlfriend that appears to have sealed his fate.
On Sunday, the long-ruling president Alexander Lukashenko scrambled a fighter jet to intercept a civilian airliner carrying the 26-year-old Protasevich to Lithuania’s capital Vilnius, citing an alleged bomb threat. Protasevich and his girlfriend were arrested at the airport and authorities later released a video in which Protasevich, clenching his hands together and looking unlike himself, confesses to organising mass disturbances in Belarus. Protasevich’s family and friends dismissed the confessions as having been obtained under duress, saying that he appeared to have heavy make-up on to conceal bruising and his nose looked slightly out of shape.
The video, published on a government-linked Telegram channel, shows Protasevich speaking unusually fast and saying he has no complaints about his treatment or his health. Ekaterina Yerusalimskaya, his former girlfriend and colleague at opposition Telegram channel NEXTA, told VICE World News she has no doubts Protasevich was beaten.
“The first thing I noticed was his nose,” Yerusalimskaya said from Vilnius. “I know his nose. We would always laugh that he had a round nose, like a bulb, he didn’t have a distinct bump on his nose, but now it was there, and it was crooked.”
“These are not his words; it’s a text that he memorised, it’s phrases that he was forced to say,” Yerusalimskaya said.
The same Telegram channel also released a video in which a young woman introduces herself as Protasevich’s companion Sofia Sapega and says that she ran an opposition Telegram channel that publishes private information on government officials in Belarus.
Last August, Protasevich sat in NEXTA’s office in Warsaw, churning out Telegram messages as Belarusians flooded the streets of Minsk and other cities. Looking at the numbers and the resolve of the protesters, Protasevich became so convinced that a victory of the opposition was near that he told an interviewer that he dreamt of returning home in the coming weeks “to a new and free Belarus.” Eight months later, Protasevich did return to Belarus – but the dream turned into a nightmare.
“We were shocked, we didn’t expect it,” NEXTA’s founder Stepan Putilo told VICE World News by video call from Warsaw following Protasevich’s arrest. “We just couldn’t believe it.”
International condemnation was swift. Western nations accused Minsk of state-sponsored piracy, severed air ties with Belarus and promised further economic sanctions.
Backed by neighbouring Russia, Lukashenko doubled down. His government first blamed the militant Palestinian group Hamas for the false bomb scare, an allegation Hamas promptly rejected. Later Lukashenko asserted that the letter with the threat came from Switzerland.
“Whether it was Hamas, or it wasn’t Hamas, it doesn’t matter today,” Lukashenko said in a fiery address to lawmakers and other senior officials in Minsk this week. “It was my duty to defend the people, I was concerned for the safety of the country.”
“I couldn’t let a plane fall on our people’s heads,” he added.
Artyom Shraibman, a non-resident scholar at the Moscow Carnegie Center based in Minsk, said that Lukashenko was driven by a desire to punish his enemies despite the cost of international isolation and economic sanctions to his regime.
“It’s an act of revenge for his (Protasevich’s) sins before the Belarusian authorities, the way they see it,” Schreibman said. “They want to show that nobody will escape punishment.”
Protasevich studied journalism in university in Minsk, but was expelled because he refused to toe the government line. “I was open about my views, I spoke out against propaganda, I often had arguments with the professors, there were many questions and many conflicts,” Protasevich said in an interview with Ukrainian journalist Dmitry Gordon last summer, as anti-Lukashenko protests raged in Belarus.
Over the next several years, Protasevich worked as a freelance reporter and photographer for various independent Belarusian outlets, getting detained at times and facing constant pressure from security services, until, fearing imminent arrest, he finally fled to Poland in November 2019. There, he joined NEXTA as chief editor. The name of the channel, pronounced neh-khta, or “someone” in Belarusian, is meant to symbolise the anonymity of the sources who contribute information.
“I believe that journalism can serve society and help people,” Protasevich told Russian YouTube journalist Yuri Dud last year. “Journalism is my goal in life.”
Putilo described Protasevich as kind and sympathetic, but also resolute when it came to making editorial decisions at NEXTA. “He liked to stand his ground,” Putilo said. “If he was sure of something, he kept on doing it.”
The team worked out of a small office inside a Belarusian community center in central Warsaw, sifting through tens of thousands of messages they received from sources, activists and regular Belarusians and publishing ones they deemed important and accurate. NEXTA minced no words in its copy, comparing Lukashenko to a rat and calling Belarusian law enforcement officers a hit squad.
As a result, employees received constant threats. Once such threat, Putilo recalled, was that a $300,000 bounty had been offered take Putilo to the Belarusian border and hand him over to Belarusian authorities; another was to blow up NEXTA’s office; still another message said, according to Putilo, that a prize of ten bitcoins was offered to “rip my balls off.”
Huge protests broke out last August, after Lukashenko, 66, often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator,” was declared to have won his sixth presidential term since 1994 in a vote that was widely viewed as rigged. Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya tried to challenge the results but was forced to flee the country along with fellow activists. Peaceful protests went on for months despite a brutal crackdown. Over 32,000 protesters were detained, then fined and jailed, hundreds were beaten violently.
“He is a dictator who must leave the throne after 26 years in power,” Protasevich said of Lukashenko last year.
In September, Protasevich left NEXTA to move to Vilnius and work at another Belarusian opposition Telegram channel, Belarus of the Brain. Its founder is currently in prison and reportedly recently attempted suicide in protest of his arrest and treatment.
Lukashenko’s actions in scrambling a jet to force down a passenger plane shocked the international community. But Putilo told VICE World News that he and other exiled journalists had talked about the dangers of flying over Belarus, and it’s unclear why Protasevich went ahead and booked the flight to Vilnius.
“The sad irony is that he was very interested in planes. He would photograph them,” Putilo said. “And look what happened.”