For most passengers on board Ryanair flight 4978 from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday, the news that the plane would instead touch down in the capital of Belarus represented an inconvenience.
For one passenger, however, the diversion was far more ominous. Roman Protasevich, a young Belarusian dissident, scrambled to grab his luggage and is said to have told witnesses that he feared he would face the death penalty.
Protasevich, who is wanted on a variety of charges in Belarus, was arrested Sunday when the flight was forced to land in Minsk, in an incident described by some Western leaders as “state-sanctioned hijacking.”
Just 26 years old, Protasevich is one of a new generation of Belarusian political activists who was catapulted to prominence by the surge in public opposition to the long and repressive rule of President Alexander Lukashenko.
Protasevich, who was born after Lukashenko assumed office in 1994, had made a name for himself as a rebel long before last year’s hotly disputed election, which led to a new wave of protests in Belarus. He was involved in demonstrations against the regime as a teenager and was later expelled from the journalism program at Belarusian State University. He was always at the frontlines of protests, according to fellow activists.
Protasevich became a cameraman, journalist and blogger, and received a Václav Havel Journalism Fellowship, which brings regional journalists to Radio Free Europe’s headquarters in Prague for training and mentorship.
Another on the program was Franak Viacorka, who went on to become an adviser to Lukashenko’s opponent in last year’s election, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Viacorka told CNN that Protasevich was extremely courageous at demonstrations, even as a minor, and was arrested countless times.
“He was always the bravest, always on the frontline near the police,” Viacorka said. “And I was always confident that even after prison he would not be broken. He was like the piece of iron, ready to fight. He knew what he wanted, with a strong feeling of his mission.”
Protasevich co-founded the Telegram channel NEXTA in 2015. Its popularity exploded around last year’s elections, not least because it was one of the few platforms that people in Belarus could access. In one week, it gained more than 800,000 new subscribers, and now has 1.2 million members – a huge following in a country of 9.3 million people.
Viacorka said that Protasevich was expert at combining media activism and journalism, which made him a potent threat to the regime. “He could present information in very clear terms so people could understand what was happening. He was always challenging Lukashenko personally, so he became the personal enemy of Lukashenko.”
Not only did NEXTA swiftly upload photos and videos of protests sent by eye witnesses, it also offered advice on how to deal with the security forces. And in the absence of a clear protest leader – after most vocal activists had been detained or exiled – the channel became a reliable source of verified information for protesters to coordinate their moves.
“This is very important in a dictatorship,” said Viacorka, “because a dictatorship tries to create noise, and these Telegram channels reveal the truth and the corrupt nature of the regime.”
At the same time, Protasevich worried about calling people out onto the streets. He told the BBC Russian Service last year: “To some extent I feel responsible for what’s going on. I feel uncomfortable when I see footage of people with holes in their bodies, partially torn limbs. Do I feel responsible for publishing in our country? Only in terms of whether it will bring people closer to victory and to the end of the dictatorship.”
Protasevich moved to another Telegram channel – Belamova – after its founder Ihar Losik was imprisoned last summer. Belamova is the second most popular opposition platform after NEXTA, according to other opposition figures.
A colleague at Belamova, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, told CNN: “Roman is the heart and soul of our channel and a true professional. He was able to set up the processes in such a way that the channel can carry on working effectively in his absence.”
The person added: “We understand the risks associated with our work and are expecting anything. We will not allow the kidnapping of Roman to affect the work of the channel – we will only become stronger.”
Last week Protasevich went to Greece and photographed the opposition leader Tikhanovskaya, an experience he described on Twitter as “insanely cool.”
But he was also worried by events at home. The regime had begun taking retribution against his family in Belarus. He tweeted earlier this month: “Lukashenko has ordered to strip my father of his military rank. My father served in the military for 29 years and quit in the autumn 2019.”
Protasevich had previously said that his family had not been involved in the protest movement.
His arrest is also just the latest, if most dramatic, example of the Belarussian authorities’ efforts to stamp out independent journalism. Last week, the country’s security forces raided the offices of the largest independent news portal – TUT.BY – and blocked its website.
Viacorka told CNN that Protasevich is “a symbol right now of what might happen to any journalist.” He estimates there are at least 30 journalists and bloggers in prison in Belarus. “I think they will be trying to break Roman,” he said.
Last November, Protasevich was charged in absentia with “organizing mass riots and group actions that grossly violate public order,” charges that could bring 15 years in jail. He is also on a government ‘wanted’ list for terrorism.
Viacorka is worried that this may be expanded to include terrorism-related charges, which would potentially bring a 25-year jail sentence.
Protasevich himself fears something even worse. A fellow passenger on Sunday’s flight told AFP news agency that as the plane landed in Minsk, “he just turned to people and said he was facing the death penalty.”
“Although he is currently wanted as a suspect under Article 293 (maximum punishment 15 years in prison) there is a chance that he will be indicted with a more severe crime, and then the death penalty is not excluded. But knowing the conditions in Belarusian prisons, I would worry about his ill-treatment,” Kanstantsin Dzehtsiarou, a professor in human rights law at the University of Liverpool, told CNN.
Just last week another political activist – 50-year-old Vitold Ashurok – died in jail while serving time for participating in last year’s protests. Ashurok died from a cardiac arrest, according to Belarusian media. He’d been sentenced in January after a court found him guilty of gross violations of public order and violence against police.