Roman Protasevich, 26, the dissident Belarusian journalist arrested on May 23rd, is feared to be experiencing torture and facing death at the hands of the Belarusian KGB. His mother, Natalia Protasevich, claims that bruises and strangulation marks on his body were covered by makeup in a recently released video. In the video, he stated he was fine and confessed to organizing mass protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Natalia said that it was apparent in the video he was speaking under duress. “I’m asking, I’m begging, I’m calling on the whole international community to save him,” she told Agence France-Presse. “He’s only one journalist, he’s only one child but please, please….I am begging for help. Please save him! They’re going to kill him in there!”
Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, 23, were taken into custody when their Ryanair flight traveling from Athens, Greece to Vilnius, Lithuania, was forced to land in the Belarus capital of Minsk. The pilots were told by Minsk air traffic controllers that there was a bomb on board the flight and were instructed to land at the Minsk airport, despite the fact that the plane was physically closer to Vilnius. The airport had received the news of a bomb through an email from Hamas, but spokesman Fawzi Barhoum later said that the Palestinian militant group had no part in this event. A Belarus Air Force MiG29 was sent to accompany the 126 passenger plane as it was landing. Passengers claimed that Protasevich was visibly scared and started giving his belongings to his girlfriend, which was in vain since she was also arrested. The passengers’ luggage and the plane were searched for a bomb, but none was found.
The Belarusian government, led for 26 years by Lukashenko, has been described as Europe’s last dictatorship. Lukashenko is known for his brutal leadership tactics and effort to stay in power, despite significant protest from citizens. Last August, he won in a landslide victory against opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in what was supposedly a rigged election. Protasevich was living in exile in Lithuania but was responsible for helping organize the mass protests that followed Lukashenko’s victory. He was the co-creator and worked as an editor for NEXTA, a channel on the social media platform Telegram that was a popular space for organizing demonstrations. The Belarusian government claimed him to be a threat to public order and a terrorist late last year. If he is convicted of being a terrorist, he could face 12-15 years in prison or even the death penalty. Sapega will be in a pre-trial detention center for two months.
The Belarusian government’s actions were met with widespread condemnation from the international community, with the exception of Russia, a Belarus ally. Head of Russian television channel RT tweeted that Lukashenko “performed beautifully.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken tweeted, “we demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps. The United States stands with the people of Belarus.” Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas stated, “such an act cannot remain without clear consequences.” Lithuania claimed that Belarus’ actions were “abhorrent.” EU leaders have called for their countries to avoid Belarusian airspace, and to not let Belarusian aircraft land in their airports. They called the arrest a “state-sponsored hijacking.” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said a 3 billion European investment aid package to Belarus would be frozen. If the Belarusian government still does not let Protasevich go safely, the EU and the U.S. may have to take even more drastic measures against the country. The U.S. can work on putting pressure on the Russian government and also work with countries in Eastern Europe that oppose Belarus, including Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine. It looks like Belarus is currently unrelenting, so more extreme measures against them could include widespread trade and travel bans.
Protasevich began resisting the government when he was 16, when he was detained for attending a protest and posting a YouTube video talking about government corruption. As a result, he was expelled from the elite science high school he was attending. He later studied journalism at Belarusian State University but did not finish there and became a freelance reporter. Protasevich did say that he noticed a man following him and taking photos in the Athens airport. It is also believed that there were Belarusian KGB on the Ryanair flight, as several passengers excluding Protasevich and Sapega did not re-board. The fact that the government of Belarus took such actions to detain him shows the influence he has on the public. A campaign has even started among EU countries to name streets that Belarus embassies are on after Protasevich, so that all correspondence coming from them comes from “Roman Protasevich” street. This sends a clear message to Belarus that EU countries support him.
Protasevich’s fate will have repercussions on the international community, as it shows the lengths that authoritarian governments will still go to repress dissent. Other recent examples of government repression are Russia’s attack on former military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Because other authoritarian governments may follow suit, it will be up to the international community to counter measures taken by such governments and to protect journalists. For now, we are counting on them to put extreme pressure on Belarus and see that Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega are freed safely.