‘The first terrorist journalist in history’: at 26, arrested Belarusian blogger spent a decade in opposition
Raman Pratasevich has been part of the Belarusian political opposition for more than a decade and has long feared the authorities will try to kidnap him, even though he lived abroad. The 26-year-old dissident journalist, however, could not imagine how far they would go.
Pratasevich, who ran a channel on a messaging app used to stage protests against President Alexander Lukashenko’s iron-fisted reign, left his homeland in 2019 in an attempt to escape the reach of the Belarusian KGB and is found in Lithuania. He was charged in absentia with inciting rioting, carrying a 15-year prison sentence.
As he returned to the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, of Greece on Sunday with his girlfriend aboard a Ryanair plane, Belarusian flight controllers asked the crew to divert to Minsk, citing an alert to the bomb. Lukashenko scrambled a fighter plane to escort the plane.
When it became clear where the plane was heading, a clearly shaken Pratasevich told other passengers he feared he would be executed in Belarus, which still applies the death penalty.
Pratasevich has been put on a list of people Belarus considers terrorists, which could carry the death penalty. He even joked about it before his arrest, using morbid humor on his Twitter account to describe himself as “the first journalist-terrorist in history.”
READ ALSO: Detained Journalist Plotted ‘Bloody Rebellion’, Belarusian President Says
Belarus was known as a sleepy place dating back to Soviet times, with few protests and a population that endured the repressive Lukashenko regime for more than a quarter of a century.
But Pratasevich and other dissidents of his generation sought to change that.
“He succeeded in awakening Belarusians, connecting the smoldering discontent in society with new technologies, which led to unprecedented rallies and angered the dictator,” said Franak Viachorka, a longtime friend. .
After the hijacking, which indignant leaders abroad called air piracy, the European Union banned Belarusian airlines from its airspace and airports and advised its carriers to bypass Belarus. He is evaluating other sanctions that could target large Belarusian companies.
READ ALSO: The UN aviation body to investigate the grounding of a Belarusian plane, first report expected on June 25
On Friday, the mayor of a district of Bucharest, the capital of Romania, announced his support for a proposal to rename a street where the Belarusian embassy is located for the young Pratasevich.
At the age of 16, Pratasevich joined the Young Front, a youth organization that helped organize the anti-Lukashenko protests after the 2010 elections. He was arrested by police on several occasions and eventually expelled from his high school in Minsk.
As a journalism student, he worked for the Belarusian service of the US-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and other media.
Pratasevich joined protests in neighboring Ukraine in 2014 that ousted its president from Moscow, injured in a clash with police. He was wounded again the following year in fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Lukashenko and other Belarusian officials claimed that Pratasevich had fought as a “mercenary” in eastern Ukraine, but Andriy Biletskiy, who led the Azov volunteer battalion in the region, insisted that Pratasevich worked there as a journalist.
Pratasevich was expelled from Belarusian State University in 2018 as punishment for his cooperation with independent media, and he left the country the following year under increasing official pressure.
He rose to fame in 2020 when he and another young journalist, Stsiapan Putsila, created a channel on the Telegram messaging app called Nexta, which looks like the word “someone” in Belarusian.
He became extremely popular when massive protests swept through Belarus after Lukashenko was re-elected to a sixth term in the August ballot that was widely seen as fraudulent.
The Nexta channel had nearly two million subscribers in the country of 9.3 million inhabitants and was an important tool in the mounting of the demonstrations, the most important of which drew up to 200,000 people. It would provide information on the location of the protest, give instructions on how to bypass security lines and feature photos, videos and other user content on the police crackdown.
“We have become a voice for all Belarusians,” Pratasevich said at the time. He said Nexta only had four employees who worked 20 hours a day.
Viachorka said that even in the most desperate situations, Pratasevich “would tell Belarusians not to give up. Lukashenko targeted him because he was so visible, courageous and brilliant.
Furious Belarusian authorities have called Nexta an “extremist,” a designation that lays criminal charges against anyone who shares her documents on the Internet. Pratasevich and Putsila were accused of inciting mass unrest and stoking social hatred.
In an interview in Warsaw with the Associated Press, Putsila said this week that there had been “thousands of threats to blow up our office, that we would all be shot.”
After leaving Nexta last fall, Pratasevich moved to Lithuania and launched another Telegram channel called Brain Belarus. His 23-year-old Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who was arrested with him on Sunday, was studying at a university in Vilnius.
Pratasevich knew the risks of his activism, even living abroad. Fearing kidnapping, he frequently moved to another residence and tried to avoid walking alone late at night.
Despite threats and concerns about the Belarusian authorities, Putsila always said he was shocked by Lukashenko’s decision to hijack the plane. “The regime has started to do unthinkable things that are against the law and against logic,” he said.
In a speech on Wednesday, Lukashenko accused Pratasevich of having instigated a “bloody rebellion” in Belarus, in collaboration with foreign spy agencies.
Pratasevich appeared after his arrest in a detention video broadcast on Belarusian national television. Speaking quickly and in a monotonous voice, he said he confessed to organizing mass unrest.
Watching from Poland, where they now live, her parents said the confession appeared to be forced. His mother, Natalia Pratasevich, said her son’s nose appeared to have been broken and it appeared that makeup had been applied to cover the bruises on his face.
“I want you to hear my cry, the cry of my soul,” she told reporters Thursday in an emotional appeal. “I beg you, help me free my son!”
Earlier this month, the government hit back at Pratasevich’s father, a retired military officer, stripping him of his rank along with dozens of other opposition officers.
The dissident journalist’s friend Viachorka said that Pratasevich “feared falling into the hands of the KGB”, and once they even spoke of a scenario in which security forces requisitioned a plane but quickly took it. rejected.
“We joked once, discussing what we would do if the KGB got us,” Viachorka said. “For example, if they hijack a plane. But he couldn’t believe such a thing could happen, dismissing it as cinema, Hollywood.