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 move a “hijacking” as the bloc was set on Monday to discuss toughening existing sanctions against Belarus, imposed over President Alexander Lukashenko’s crackdown on opposition protesters last year.
The Belarusian president was awarded a sixth term in last August’s disputed election that opposition figures say was rigged.
The country was rocked by mass anti-government demonstrations in the wake of the vote that led to the detention of thousands, of whom dozens received jail terms, according to human rights groups.
Who is Roman Protasevich?
The 26-year-old co-founded and edited the Poland-based online news service, Nexta, which broadcast footage of the mass protests via the Telegram messenger app.
With close to two million subscribers on Telegram, Nexta Live and its sister channel Nexta played a key role in steering and coordinating protesters last year, when internet access was often blocked and independent media were heavily restricted.
Protasevich, who feared being arrested, fled for Poland in 2019.
In January 2020, he reportedly sought asylum.
Later, he had relocated to the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, where political leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, regarded by the Belarusian opposition as the real winner of the disputed election, had also sought refuge.
In November 2020, Belarus launched a probe against Protasevich and Nexta’s co-founder Stsiapan Putsila for allegedly disrupting social order and inciting social hatred.
The accusations carry a punishment of more than 12 years in prison.
Protasevich was accused of “terrorist” activities, while the Nexta Telegram channels and its logo were labelled as “extremist” and ordered to be blocked by Belarusian authorities.
Terror offences can carry the death penalty in Belarus, where capital punishment remains legal.
Я ОФИЦИАЛЬНО ПРИЗНАН ТЕРРОРИСТОМ
Да, это не шутка. КГБ Беларуси внёс меня в список террористов. Теперь моя фамилия стоит в одном списке с ребятами из ИГИЛ. pic.twitter.com/k74wdaT1lR
— Roman Protasevich (@pr0tez) November 19, 2020
Translation: I am officially recognised as a terrorist. Yes, this is not a joke. The KGB of Belarus put me on the list of terrorists. Now my name is on the same list with the guys from ISIS.
Since March this year, Protasevich had been working for a different Telegram channel, Belamova.
A young activist
Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager, has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, a year before Protasevich was born.
Protasevich began as a digital activist in his teens.
He was arrested on several occasions, including in 2012 – aged 17 – for running two anti-Lukashenko groups on the Russia-based social networking site, Vkontakte.
One group was called “We are sick of this Lukashenko”.
“They hit me in the kidneys and liver,” Protasevich, then a student, said at the time. “I urinated blood for three days afterwards. They threatened to accuse me of unsolved murders.”
During the interrogation, he said, Belarusian security service officers, still named the KGB as in Soviet times, demanded his passwords to the online groups.
He later worked as a photographer for Belarusian media and was a recipient of the Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship in 2017-2018, an award for aspiring independent journalists named after the late Czech dissident-turned-president.
Soon after enrolling at the Belarusian State University’s journalism faculty in Misk, Protasevich was expelled, according to Euroradio, an international radio station where he had worked from September 2018 to November 2019.