Roman Protasevich was on a plane flying from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday when the flight was suddenly diverted to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, where he was arrested.
The news led to international condemnation with some European leaders calling the measure a “kidnapping” as the bloc was set up on Monday to debate the tightening of existing sanctions against Belarus, imposed by President Alexander Lukashenko’s crackdown on opposition protesters in past.
The Belarusian president received a sixth term in the disputed elections last August, according to opposition figures.
The country was shaken by mass demonstrations against the government this led to the arrest of thousands, dozens of whom received prison sentences, according to human rights groups.
Who is Roman Protasevich?
The 26-year-old co-founded and edited Poland-based online news service Nexta, which broadcast images of the mass protests via the Telegram messaging app.
With nearly two million subscribers to Telegram, Nexta Live and its sister channel Nexta played a key role in directing and coordinating protesters last year, when Internet access was often blocked and the media independents were severely restricted.
Protasevich, who feared arrest, fled to Poland in 2019.
In January 2020, he reportedly applied for asylum.
He had later moved to the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, where he had also addressed political leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, considered by the Belarusian opposition to be the real winner of the disputed election. he sought refuge.
In November 2020, Belarus launched a poll against Protasevich and Nexta co-founder Stsiapan Putsila for allegedly disrupting social order and inciting social hatred.
The charges carry a sentence of more than 12 years in prison.
Protasevich was accused of “terrorist” activities, while the Nexta Telegram channels and their logo were labeled “extremist” and were ordered by Belarusian authorities to block them.
Terrorist crimes can carry the death penalty in Belarus, where the death penalty remains legal.
I AM OFFICIALLY RECOGNIZED AS A TERRORIST
Yes, this is no joke. The KGB of Belarus put me on the terrorist list. Now my name is on the same list as the ISIS guys. pic.twitter.com/k74wdaT1lR
– Roman Protasevich (@pr0tez) November 19, 2020
Translation: I am officially recognized as a terrorist. Yes, this is no joke. The KGB of Belarus put me on the terrorist list. Now my name is on the same list as the ISIS guys.
From March this year, Protasevich worked for a different Telegram channel, Belamova.
A young activist
Lukashenko, a former director of collective farms, has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, a year before Protasevich was born.
Protasevich began as a digital activist from his adolescence.
He was arrested on several occasions, including in 2012, at the age of 17, for leading two anti-Lukashenko groups to the Russian-based social media site Vkontakte.
One group was called “We’re fed up with this Lukashenko.”
“I was hit in the kidneys and liver,” Protasevich, a student, said at the time. “I urinated blood for three days later. They threatened to charge me with unsolved murder. “
During interrogations, he said, Belarusian security service agents, still known as the KGB as in Soviet times, demanded their passwords from online groups.
He later worked as a photographer for the Belarusian media and received the Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship in 2017-2018, an award for aspiring independent journalists named after the late Czech dissident turned president.
Shortly after enrolling in the journalism faculty of Belarus State University in Misk, Protasevich was expelled, according to Euroradio, an international radio station where he had worked from September 2018 to November 2019.