Roman Protasevich: The young dissident who Belarus diverted a Ryanair flight to arrest

Roman Protasevich addresses a crowd during the 'Free Poland To Free Belarus' support rally in Gdansk, Poland, on August 31, 2020.

(CNN)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.
      Belarus police detain journalist Roman Protasevich in Minsk, Belarus on March 26, 2017.
      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."
        Opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich arrives for a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus April 10, 2017.