Meet Roman Protasevich, journalist arrested by Belarus after plane 'hijack'
Earlier this week, Belarusian authorities drew international criticism for the dramatic arrest of Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old journalist critical of the nation's government, led by Alexander Lukashenko. Protasevich was aboard an Athens-Lithuania flight, flying over Belarus, when it was forced to divert and land in Minsk so the journalist could be arrested. Who is Protasevich? And why was his arrest so important to Belarus?
Protasevich is a Belarusian journalist and activist who grew up in Minsk. He has been a strong opponent of the Belarusian government for a decade. In 2011, at age 16, Protasevich had participated in a silent "clapping protest" against the government and was detained. After his detention, Protasevich reportedly criticized the police excess in a video posted to YouTube.
"I saw all the dirt that is happening in our country," Protasevich reportedly said in the video, "Just as an example: Five huge OMON riot police officers beat women. A mother with her child was thrown into a police van. It was disgusting."
Protasevich's mother told The New York Times that her son was expelled from school after his detention. He was also rejected from every other school, and hence, had to be homeschooled for six months, she said. Protasevich studied journalism at Belarusian State University, however, he was unable to finish his degree after running into some legal trouble.
Protasevich went on to work as a freelance journalist for Opposition-focused news outlets and was frequently jailed for his reporting. He eventually moved to Poland, where he continued to be critical of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. He is now the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Nexta, a Poland-based news outlet reporting on Opposition efforts against the President.
After the controversial 2020 Presidential elections, Protasevich crossed over into political activism, organizing protests against Lukashenko. The 2020 elections, held in August, had triggered widespread protests amid allegations that the polls were rigged. The election marked Lukashenko's victory for a sixth term by a landslide. The European Union had imposed sanctions on several government officials, including Lukashenko, after the elections.
Last year, in an interview with the NYT, Protasevich said, "We're journalists, but we also have to do something else." He added, "No one else is left...The opposition leaders are in prison." Stispan Putsila, a fellow dissident who worked at Nexta, told the NYT that Lukashenko regime considers Protasevich "one of its main enemies." Putsila added, "Maybe it is right."
Protasevich was flying from Athens to Lithuania aboard Ryanair flight FR4978 with his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, this week. Reportedly, Lukashenko had given an "unequivocal order" to ground the plane in Minsk. The plane was near Lithuania and had made a sharp U-turn to land in Minsk, Business Insider reported citing Flightradar24 data. Belarusian KGB agents then took Protasevich in custody.
After his arrest, a video showed Protasevich saying he was treated "correctly" and "lawfully" by authorities while being taken into custody. He said he was cooperating with authorities and continued to provide evidence on protests in Minsk. According to the NYT, his friends claim Protasevich's confession was under duress. Meanwhile, dissident leader Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya urged the International Civil Aviation Organization to investigate the incident.
Tikhanovskaya said, "Not a single person who flies over Belarus can be sure of his safety." In protest, several airlines have started shunning Belarusian air space. The ICAO also said that it is "strongly concerned by the apparent forced landing." Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said, "Hijacking a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism that cannot go unpunished."