Colleague of detained Belarusian dissident said he and Roman Protasevich talked about digital security preparations prior to arrest but ‘neglected’ physical security

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Roman Protasevich former editor in chief of the Nexta Telegram and youtube channel initiator covering the Belarusian protests, speaking during a rally in Gdansk, Poland on 31 August 2020.

  • Roman Protasevich made preparations to protect his digital security before he was detained last month.
  • But a friend said the young dissident did not predict that the Lukashenko regime would take such a drastic step.
  • Franak Viačorka, a colleague of Protasevich, told Insider that his friend’s “nightmare” was being captured by the KGB.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Weeks before Belarusian authorities diverted a passenger plane to Minsk in order to arrest 26-year-old dissident Roman Protasevich, the young opposition blogger had discussed with a colleague the possibility that Belarus’s authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, might make a targeted strike against him.

In the aftermath of Protasevich’s arrest, Franak Viačorka, a senior advisor to exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and a longtime colleague of Protasevich, told Insider that the two men had discussed potential scenarios and reactions to different events undertaken by their country’s autocratic government.

“We thought about security a lot,” Viačorka said. “Especially digital security.”

As co-founder and editor-in-chief of NEXTA, a popular opposition Telegram channel based in Poland, Protasevich focused much of his work on leaking videos and documents from the Lukashenko regime. The team at NEXTA played a vital informational role during last year’s highly contested presidential election as Lukashenko’s regime shuttered independent media organizations inside the country.

When Belarusian security forces detained Protasevich on May 23 after the Ryanair flight he was traveling on from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in Minsk, Viačorka said all of Protasevich’s pages and accounts were deleted, thanks to prior digital security planning.

“But we neglected the physical security,” he said. “This flight, this was something we did not predict.

Protasevich had been flying to Vilnius from Athens where he had been covering an economic forum before enjoying a brief vacation with his girlfriend, 23-year-old Sofia Sapega, who was also detained last month.

Viačorka had been in Greece with Protasevich just days before, where he and his boss, Tikhanovskaya, who was forced into exile after running against Lukashenko in August’s disputed elections, attended the same conference, at the invitation of Greece’s government, he said.

In fact, one week before Protasevich and Sapega’s fateful Ryanair flight, Viačorka told Insider that he and Tikhanovskaya took the same flight from Athens to Vilnius.

“So, perhaps, that was also a message to us,” he said.

When Viačorka saw the news that a plane had been forced to stop in Minsk on that Sunday in May, he said he was shocked. He believes he was one of the first people to know Protasevich was on the flight and the intended target of the aircraft’s backtracking.

“I waited until the very last moment to not publish this information, hoping that something will change, hoping that they will let him go or they will not land in Minsk,” he said.

In the hours and days that followed the abrupt diversion, passengers on the flight told reporters that Protasevich looked “shocked” and “scared” following the pilot’s announcement, even as the young activist instinctively began collecting his electronics to hand over to Sapega for safekeeping.

Ryanair’s CEO later said KGB agents had been aboard the flight from the start.

“I know Roman was scared. He was always afraid of being captured by KGB,” Viačorka said. “It was his nightmare.”

In their conversations in the weeks leading up to Protasevich’s capture, the two men discussed KGB methods and spy networks, Viačorka said.

“Sometimes joking, sometimes seriously, we discussed these different situations,” he said. “Perhaps, this is the only situation we did not predict.”

Protasevich now faces a possible death sentence on charges of terrorism and inciting anti-government riots in Belarus – the last European country to employ the method.

On Thursday, he appeared on Belarusian state TV confessing to crimes against the country and praising his one-time foe, Lukashenko. Protasaevich’s family, Belarusian opposition leaders, and members of the international community have decried the video, which has raised new concerns of torture and coercion.

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Meet Roman Protasevich, the 26-year-old journalist with 2 million followers who was arrested by Belarusian authorities after his plane was forced to land

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A prominent opponent of Belarus’ authoritarian president Roman Protasevich attends an opposition rally in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, March 25, 2012.

  • Belarusian authorities detained a 26-year-old journalist after grounding his Lithuania-bound flight.
  • Roman Protasevich is a vocal critic of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
  • Protasevich’s activism against his country’s tyranny dates back to 2011, when he was 16 years old.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The dramatic arrest of Belarusian dissident Roman Protasevich drew international interest this week, when Belarusian authorities took the 26-year-old journalist into custody after grounding his Lithuania-bound Ryanair flight.

Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were aboard flight FR4978 from Athens to Lithuania before pilots were alerted of a bogus security threat and ordered to land in Minsk. Belarusian state media reported it was Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko who gave an “unequivocal order” to ground the passenger jet in Minsk.

Belarusian KGB agents took Protasevich, a vocal critic of Lukashenko, into custody after the flight landed in Minsk, despite data on Flightradar24 showing the plane made a sharp U-turn to land in Belarus, as it was closer to its destination in Lithuania than Minsk, Insider’s Cheryl Teh reported.

Protestors in Poland demand the release of Belarusian dissident Roman Protasevich.
Belarusians living in Poland and Poles supporting them hold up a placard reading ‘Freedom to Roman Protasevich’ during a demonstration in front of the European Commission office in Warsaw on May 24, 2021.

Just before Belarusian authorities arrested Protasevich, one passenger aboard the plane – solely identified as Mantas – told Reuters they saw him give a laptop and phone to a female passenger who was traveling with him. It was not immediately clear if that female passenger was Sapega, who was also detained after the flight was grounded in Minsk and could face charges in Belarus.

Protasevich grew up in Minsk, and has been an opponent of Lukashenko’s regime for a decade, first demonstrating his opposition to the Belarusian government in a 2011 video posted to YouTube. Protasevich, then 16 years old, was among those detained by state authorities after sitting on a bench watching a “clapping protest” – in which a flash mob clapped in protest of the government but never audibly expressing their grievances, according to a report by The New York Times.

“For the first time I saw all the dirt that is happening in our country,” he said in the video, citing The Times report. “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. After that everything changed fundamentally.”

Protasevich’s mother told The Times that, soon after, her son’s school expelled him. He was homeschooled for six months because no other schools would take him.

“Imagine being a 16-year-old and being expelled from school,” Protasevich’s mother told The Times, citing the 2011 incident – which she described as an “injustice” and an “insult” – as the reason he was so entrenched in opposition activism. “That is how he began his activism as a 16-year-old.”

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A woman holds a poster reading “Where is Roman?!” as she waits to see passengers of the Ryanair plane with registration number SP-RSM, carrying opposition figure Roman Protasevich which was traveling from Athens to Vilnius and was diverted to Minsk after a bomb threat.

Read more: Don’t let Ryanair ignore your right not to be kidnapped

Protasevich went on to study journalism at Belarusian State University but ran into legal trouble and was unable to finish his degree, The Times reported.

He was frequently detained and jailed as he worked freelance for opposition-focused news outlets, before he decided to move to Poland and work on leaking videos and documents related to the Lukashenko regime. He cofounded and serves as the editor-in-chief of Nexta, a news outlet based in Poland reporting on opposition efforts against Lukashenko, for the next 10 months.

In 2019, he moved back to Minsk until authorities arrested another opposition journalist Vladimir Chudentsov, prompting Protasevich to once again flee to Poland with his parents, who were also under government scrutiny. Amid the controversial 2020 presidential election in Belarus, Protasevich took a step further in his “activist journalism” and began to cross into the realm of political activism – not only reporting on protests against Lukashenko’s regime but also organizing them.

Roman Protasevich video confession
Screenshot from a video of the journalist Roman Protasevich released by Belarusian authorities on May 24, 2021.

Stispan Putsila, a fellow dissident who worked alongside Protasevich at Nexta, told The Times Protasevich became “more interested in organizing street action” following the 2020 presidential election in Belarus, in which allegations of a rigged election spurred nationwide protests after Lukashenko won a sixth term by a landslide.

The European Union also imposed sanctions on several Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko, in the wake of the contested presidential elections in August.

“I would not say he was more radical, but he definitely became more resolute,” Putsila said of Protasevich’s emerging activism in light of the elections.

In an interview with The Times last year, Protasevich said “we’re journalists, but we also have to do something else.”

“No one else is left,” he continued. “The opposition leaders are in prison.”

In a government video reposted by the Minsk reporter Hanna Liubakova following his arrest earlier this week, Protasevich confirmed he was detained by authorities at Minsk National Airport by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. He said he’s had “no health concerns” and was treated “correctly” and “lawfully” when taken into custody.

Protasevich said he was cooperating with authorities and continued to “provide evidence related to the mass rallies in Minsk,” according to a translation by Insider.

The Times reported his friends said he made the aforementioned confession under duress as he was in custody at the Minsk National Airport. On the contrary, Putsila told The Times Protasevich’s character “has always been very resolute” and that he “refused to live in fear.”

“The Lukashenko regime considers Roman one of its main enemies,” Putsila told The Times. “Maybe it is right.”

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Putin likely gave Belarus the go-ahead to hijack the RyanAir plane, officials and experts say

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  • Top experts and officials say it’s unlikely Belarus would’ve hijacked a flight without Russia’s permission.
  • Belarus’s authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko relies heavily on Putin for support.
  • Belarus is facing swift consequences over the incident, which could make it more reliant on Russia.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Russian President Vladimir Putin likely gave Belarus the green light to force a RyanAir flight to land in Minsk so that authorities could arrest a prominent dissident, top officials and experts say.

Belarus’s authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko is heavily reliant on Putin’s support from an economic, military, and political standpoint. It’s therefore thought to be unlikely that the Belarusian dictator would make such an audacious move without the Russian leader’s blessing.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on Monday said that it was “very difficult to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow.” Raab added that there was no firm evidence of Russia’s involvement.

“Belarus would not have hijacked an EU plane without Russian approval,” Yale historian Timothy Snyder tweeted.

As world leaders have denounced Belarus’s actions as state-sanctioned hijacking, Russia has continued to offer Belarus support following the incident, and dismissed suspicions of its involvement as “obsessive Russophobia.”

The Ryainair flight, which was en route from Greece to Lithuania, was grounded under a fake bomb threat and escorted into Minsk by a fighter jet.

After the forced landing, Belarusian opposition journalist Roman Protasevich was taken into custody. Protasevich has been a leading critic of Lukashenko, who faced mass protests in 2020 after he won a sixth term in an election widely viewed as rigged. The 26-year-old dissident fled Belarus in 2019 over fear of arrest, but continued to criticize Lukashenko while in exile.

As Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday condemned the Belarusian government over the “brazen and shocking act,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov defended Belarus’s actions as “reasonable.”

Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova in a Facebook post accused Western countries of hypocrisy over the response. “It is shocking that the West calls the incident in Belarusian airspace ‘shocking’,” she wrote.

Though there is suspicion of Russian involvement, the Biden administration has avoided making any explicit allegations. Discussing whether the US believed Russia played a role in the forced landing and arrest of Protasevich, White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday said, “I did not give any indication that we had that view yesterday, and that has not changed. We don’t have a belief that that is the case.”

The White House on Tuesday announced that President Joe Biden will meet with Putin face-to-face for the first time since becoming commander-in-chief. Psaki during Tuesday’s briefing indicated that Belarus would be discussed.

Biden on Monday said he supported the EU’s push to sanction Belarus and called for Protasevich’s immediate release, adding that his administration would “develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible, in close coordination with the European Union, other allies and partners, and international organizations.”

Meanwhile, Putin is set to meet with Lukashenko later this week in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.

With the EU sanctioning Belarus, barring flights over the county, and banning Belarusian airlines from using its airspace or airports, some analysts say that the incident has benefited Russia in the sense it’s pushed Lukashenko even further away from the West.

“Lukashenko will become an increasingly easy prey for the Kremlin,” Alexander Klaskouski, an independent Minsk-based political analyst, told the Associated Press. “As a pariah country, Belarus will find it much more difficult to fend off the Kremlin demands for the introduction of a single currency, the deployment of air bases and access to lucrative Belarusian economic assets.”

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Russia is the only country to support Belarus after it intercepted a plane and detained a dissident. Experts have questioned whether Putin was involved.

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A composite image of the Belarusian dissident Roman Protasevich and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

  • Belarus on Sunday diverted a flight and arrested the dissident Roman Protasevich, who was on board.
  • Russia on Monday called it an “absolutely reasonable approach.”
  • The UK foreign secretary said he suspects Russian knowledge. The Kremlin denied involvement.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Russia is the sole country standing by Belarus after it intercepted a commercial flight and detained an outspoken dissident, prompting experts and officials to suspect Moscow’s involvement in the plot.

Roman Protasevich, 26, was taken into custody on Sunday after a Ryanair plane carrying him from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in Belarus after the pilots received a fake security report from local authorities. Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said he believed KGB agents were on the diverted flight.

The UK, US, and the EU slammed Belarus’ move, calling it a violation of aviation law and human rights.

Meanwhile, Russia has defended Belarus’ actions and used it to accuse western nations of hypocrisy.

On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Belarus had treated the incident with an “absolutely reasonable approach.”

Maria Zakharova, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, also wrote in a Facebook post: “The internet remembers all cases of violent abductions, forced landings and illegal arrests made by ‘peace officers and guardians of morality,'” referring to western democracies.

Roman Protasevich
Belarus police detain journalist Roman Protasevich in Minsk, Belarus, on March 26, 2017.

‘Belarus would not have hijacked an EU plane without Russian approval’

Even before Russia’s show of support to Belarus, experts have suspected its involvement.

Belarus is heavily reliant on Russia financially, with Moscow long working to lure Belarus away from western European alliances.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has also turned to Russian President Vladimir Putin for support in the past: When anti-government protests swept Belarus last fall, Lukashenko publicly asked Putin for help, and Putin sent support in the form of state-media journalists and surveillance resources, European intelligence sources told Insider at the time.

In a series of tweets Sunday, Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale University, said: “Belarus would not have hijacked an EU plane without Russian approval” and that “possibly the hijacking was even a Russian initiative.”

In response, Nigel Gould-Davies, the former UK ambassador to Belarus, said he “had no reason to believe” the theory that Russia orchestrated the plot, but added “that doesn’t mean to say Russia doesn’t approve or didn’t assist.”

On Monday, Britain’s foreign secretary also suspected Russian knowledge in the interception.

“It’s very difficult to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow,” Dominic Raab said, according to Reuters , caveating that he didn’t have “any clear details” on Russian involvement so far.

Timothy Ash, a senior emerging-markets strategist at Bluebay Asset Management, also said Monday that Lukashenko “would not have risked his relationship with the Kremlin by undertaking such a cavalier move unless he had been first given the green light by Putin,” CNBC reported.

Russia has denied any involvement in the interception. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday dismissed the idea that his country knew anything about the Belarus plot, saying that widespread anti-Russian sentiment meant that Russia is accused of everything these days, Reuters reported.

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