A missing Belarusian activist’s body was found in a park in Ukraine, and police are investigating if it was a ‘murder disguised as a suicide’

Belarusian activist Vitaly Shishov
Vitaly Shishov.

  • The body of a Belarusian activist was found in a park in Kyiv, Ukraine.
  • Police said they are looking at if it might be a “murder disguised as a suicide.”
  • Vitaly Shishov helped Belarusians fleeing persecution. The country retaliates against its critics.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A Belarusian activist was found dead in Ukraine, in what police are investigating as a murder.

Vitaly Shishov lived in the capital city of Kyiv, where he led the Belarusian House in Ukraine, a nonprofit that helps people from Belarus fleeing persecution, The Guardian reported.

His body was found hanging in a park on early Tuesday after he didn’t come home from a run, the BBC reported.

“Belarusian citizen Vitaly Shishov, who had gone missing in Kyiv yesterday, was today found hanged in one of the Kyiv parks, not far from where he lived,” the police said in a statement.

They said they had opened a murder investigation and that one option is that it was a “murder disguised as a suicide.”

Yury Shchuchko, a member of the Belarusian House in Ukraine, told the Associated Press Shishov was found with marks of beating on his face and that nothing was stolen from him.

Belarus, often referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship, has retaliated against people who criticize the state.

Opposition politicians have fled the country, and over the weekend, an Olympic athlete said she was forcibly taken to the airport in Tokyo after she criticized her coaches. She was given a humanitarian visa by Poland on Monday.

And in May, Belarus diverted a Ryanair passenger plane that was headed to Lithuania, forcing it to land in Belarus in order to arrest the dissident Roman Protasevich who was on board.

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Who is Alexander Lukashenko? A closer look at the dictator who has maintained an iron grip on Belarus for over 2 decades.

FILE PHOTO: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko gestures as he takes part in the celebrations of Independence Day in Minsk, Belarus July 3, 2020. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko
Belarusian President Lukashenko takes part in the celebrations of Independence Day in Minsk

  • Lukashenko has ruled the eastern European country of Belarus for over 26 years.
  • In 2020, he rigged an election and declared that he won 80% of the vote, naming himself president for a sixth term.
  • This week, he grounded a passenger plane in order to detain journalist Roman Protasevich.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A dramatic series of events involving a Ryanair passenger jet being diverted and forced to land in Minsk prompted an international outcry after it was revealed that the bomb threat that grounded the plan was simply a ruse to arrest journalist Roman Protasevich.

Protasevich, 26, is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of NEXTA, a news channel based in Poland that spread clips of mass protests against Lukashenko via encrypted messaging app Telegram. He is a vocal opponent of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and was in exile in the neighboring country of Lithuania until he and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were dragged off the Ryanair plane and detained.

The move drew condemnation from world leaders – including the US. According to CNN, the European Union has sanctioned Belarus and will be calling on all EU airlines to not fly over the country. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen added on Monday that further economic sanctions on the country would be put in place soon.

But the root of the drama swirling around the Eastern European country lies in Lukashenko himself. The 66-year-old has kept a firm grip on power in Belarus for over 26 years – and has no qualms about enraging the international community just to detain one activist.

A strongman with a military background and Russian ties

Alexander Lukashenko
Lukashenko as a student in the 1970s.

The story of Lukashenko’s rise to power in Belarus begins in 1990. Then, he was in his late 30s and was a promising young military man who just won an election to a parliamentary seat in the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Lukashenko boasts close ties to the Soviet Union, detailing a timeline of his previously held posts in the Soviet Army and his membership in the Soviet communist youth wing. At one point, in 1993, Lukashenko was named head of the Belarusian parliament’s anti-corruption commission.

In 1994, Lukashenko was elected president with 80.3% of the vote, running on the pledge to “take the country back from the abyss” – and has managed to hold on to power since.

Lukashenko’s hold on power wavers in 2020, and he is dubbed “Europe’s last dictator”

protests minsk
People attend an opposition rally to reject the presidential election results and to protest against the inauguration of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk, Belarus.

Lukashenko’s hold on power has wavered in the last year as he faced strong opposition in the 2020 election. Fearing that he might be toppled, he falsified election results – declaring that he won 80% of the vote and giving himself a sixth term.

This move sparked protests across the country. Sanctions were even imposed last year by the UK and Canada against Belarus officials in a bid by a group of Western nations, who tried to take Lukashenko to task for rigging the elections and repressing peaceful protests.

According to Politico, it is estimated that more than 35,000 Belarusians were arrested during this uprising, with thousands facing abuse and torture in police custody. During the protests, Lukashenko attempted on multiple occasions to display a facade of strength – at one point releasing a video of himself stepping off a helicopter clad in a bulletproof vest while toting an assault rifle.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been a strong ally of the Belarusian leader – even extending a $1.5 billion loan to Belarus in 2020 as a “gesture of support” and volunteering aid from the Russian police during the protests.

Al Jazeera reported that Russia also sent in Kremlin-linked journalists to change the way the protests were covered in Belarusian state media.

A 2020 report from the Guardian indicated then that Lukashenko was cracking under pressure, though he continued to resist calls for him to resign. Some media outlets then dubbed Lukashenko “Europe’s last dictator” – though some argue that while he is a dictator, he will not be the last.

His handling of the COVID pandemic in Belarus drew widespread criticism and further calls for him to step down. But Lukashenko has maintained his grip on power.

During a visit to a Minsk wheeled tractor plant last year, he countered a question about fair elections by saying: “I am answering your question. We held elections. Until you kill me, there will be no other elections.”

Lukashenko’s widespread crackdown on opposition and dissent

GettyImages 1233067326
Roman Protasevich speaking during a rally in Gdansk, Poland on 31 August 2020.

Analysts say that the grounding of the Ryanair passenger plane this week is an indication that Lukashenko will continue to intensify his crackdown on independent media and pursue journalists who are on the run – even at the cost of provoking the international community.

“This is a political message to the Belarusian political migrants of the new wave, and on the other hand, to his supporters, the so-called ‘electoral swamp,'” Igar Tyshkevich, a Belarusian analyst based in Ukraine, told Al Jazeera.

“The message is that the government is strong and may get to anyone,” Tyshkevich added.

So perhaps the best encapsulation of Lukashenko’s life might, ironically, be one that he wrote about himself.

“My life, just like the lives of other presidents, is very busy. You wake up and keep running. What does it feel like to be on the run for 25 years? I got used to it,” says a quote from Lukashenko that is proudly displayed on his official online biography.

It continues: “This hamster wheel keeps spinning, and there is no escaping it. If you stop, it will keep moving and throw you back. This is a mode of life. I am used to it.”

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The ‘shocking’ arrest of a Belarusian dissident aboard a Ryanair flight marks a pattern of authoritarianism from ‘Europe’s last dictator’

A split screen photo of Roman Protasevich and Alexander Lukashenko.
Roman Protasevich and Alexander Lukashenko.

  • Belarusian authorities last month diverted a passenger flight in order to arrest a 26-year-old activist.
  • The move shocked the international community, but experts said the step “falls within a certain pattern” for President Alexander Lukashenko.
  • As the autocrat doubles down in the aftermath, experts say international attention and action are more important than ever.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The state-sanctioned diversion and detainment of Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich last month sparked outrage and reproach around the globe. But experts say the drastic move is emblematic of a larger, more nefarious problem in Eastern Europe: the ongoing corruption and abuses by Belarus’s authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko.

Often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator,” Lukashenko has been in power since 1994, enacting his autocratic rule for nearly as long.

But in 2020, Belarus bore witness to a forceful wave of repression following a highly-contested August election, which prompted widespread protests throughout the country.

Protasevich’s detainment in May, though undeniably shocking, “falls within a certain pattern” for Lukashenko, who continues to pursue a renewed crackdown against any and all critics, according to Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division.

In the days since the hijacking, Lukashenko has doubled down – issuing a travel ban for most residents and releasing a suspect video of a detained Protasevich praising the leader and confessing to crimes.

Now, with all eyes on Belarus, experts say international action is more imperative than ever.

A state-sanctioned hijacking captivates the globe

On May 23, Belarusian authorities sent a fighter jet to divert a Ryanair plane flying from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, citing a bogus bomb threat. The passenger plane backtracked, landing in Minsk, where police officers boarded the jet and arrested Protasevich, a 26-year-old journalist and activist, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, a 23-year-old Russian student.

Passengers on Ryanair Flight 4978 told media outlets that the plane was “just minutes” from its destination in Lithuania when the pilot announced the aircraft would make an emergency landing in the Belarusian capital, after previously flying through the country’s airspace.

In the aftermath of 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.

Franak Viačorka, a senior advisor to exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and a longtime colleague of Protasevich, told Insider he knows his friend was scared.

“He was always afraid of being captured by KGB, it was his nightmare,” Viačorka said.

The two men were together just before Protasevich’s detainment, attending an economic conference in Greece, where Protasevich and Sapega also enjoyed a brief vacation. Weeks earlier, Viačorka said he and Protasevich had discussed the possibility of his capture and made plans for digital and electronic security.

“But we neglected physical security,” Viačorka said. “This was something we did not predict.”

AP21144289120098
A prominent opponent of Belarus’ authoritarian president Roman Protasevich attends an opposition rally in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, March 25, 2012.

An ‘excessively paranoid’ leader casts aside legality to apprehend a longtime adversary

Belarusian state media has reported that it was Lukashenko, himself, who gave the “unequivocal order” to ground the plane in Minsk – an audacious act by a powerful man driven by the notion that his enemies are out to get him, according to Denber.

“I think it shows that he wanted to send a message that ‘we will find you no matter where you are,'” Denber said. “No one is safe.”

Viačorka likened Lukashenko’s brazen display of power to an “alpha man” wanting to prove to the world he is in control.

Lukashenko’s moves in the days since seem to confirm Viačorka’s characterization of the aging autocrat. On May 24, Belarusian authorities posted videos of both Protasevich and Sapega confessing to crimes against the country.

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

Opposition leaders and Protasevich’s own father said the videos were made under duress, and what appeared to be an injury on Protasevich’s face sparked concerns of torture.

Then, on Thursday, the young dissident appeared on Belarusian state TV confessing to organizing “mass unrest” and praising his one-time foe.

“I realized that many things [Lukashenko] is criticized for are just attempts to pressure him, and that in many moments he acted like…a man with balls of steel,” Protasevich says in the video.

Ten days after his arrest, the staunch Lukashenko opponent was suddenly praising the autocrat’s regime.

Protasevich, who began his activism at 16, had been detained several times before during his time freelancing for opposition news outlets before moving to Poland after he was forced out of university. As co-founder and editor-in-chief of NEXTA, an opposition Telegram channel, he focused much of his work on leaking videos and documents from the Lukashenko regime.

In 2019, he was drawn back to Belarus, eager to impact real change in Minsk. But Lukashenko’s authoritarian grasp was tightening on the country ahead of the 2020 elections, and anticipating impending danger, Protasevich fled to Warsaw for a second time.

Protasevich and his allies continued their journalism at NEXTA leading up to the presidential election, playing a vital informational role as Lukashenko’s regime shuttered independent media organizations inside the country.

But amid mass protests following the country’s highly contested 2020 election, Protasevich’s journalism evolved into political activism as he began organizing protests against the Belarusian government through NEXTA, which had become the most popular opposition platform in Belarus.

“We’re journalists, but we also have to do something else,” Protasevich told The New York Times in September. “No one else is left. The opposition leaders are in prison.”

Belarus has suffered years of election-cycle repression under Lukashenko’s regime

For nearly three decades, Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with a tight grip reminiscent of the country’s Soviet past. But he wasn’t always an oppositional figure.

“It’s important to remember that [Lukashenko] was quite popular when he was elected in 1994,” Denber said.

In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s fall, economic despair and widespread corruption reigned throughout the region, casting a tremendous uncertainty over Belarus. Lukashenko offered an appealing message and solution, Denber said. He wanted to stabilize the economy, fight corruption, and provide economic and national stability for the people.

“But his autocratic…intent to erode democratic freedom and to very brusquely cast aside human rights emerged very quickly,” Denber said.

AP20220708425556
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko emerges from the polling booth after marking his ballot in Belarus’ national referendum in Minsk, Belarus.

By 1996, Lukashenko had already introduced constitutional reforms that strengthened his presidency to the detriment of other government branches and had begun going after his political opponents. By the end of the ’90s, Denber said several of Lukashenko’s political adversaries had disappeared, some presumed murdered.

Thus began a decades-long cycle of election-era repressions targeting independent journalists, human rights defenders, and political protesters. Several election cycles in the aughts sparked protests, Denber said, which in turn, would lead to fierce government crackdowns against civil society.

“There were a lot of pretty dark years,” she said.

After a particularly grim period from 2010 to 2012, Lukashenko’s repression eventually gave way to a slight “loosening up,” Denber said. By 2019, Belarus had released almost all of its political prisoners, and the European Union and the United States both dropped formerly-imposed sanctions against the country.

As the 2020 elections approached, Denber said the government promised a commitment to free and fair elections – it was the first time in years an opposition candidate would be allowed to run a real campaign.

But the August elections proved to be an inflection point of massive consequence for Protasevich, Lukashenko, and the future of Belarus.

A ‘highly contested’ election and a ‘catastrophic’ crackdown

As campaigning for the landmark election began, it was clear Lukashenko was far from ready to acquiesce power. Leading opposition candidates found themselves arrested, oftentimes on bogus charges, while other candidates were simply refused the opportunity to register.

Sergei Tikhanovsky, a well-known blogger faced both a refusal to register his nomination and a short prison sentence for organizing unauthorized protests. So, his wife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya decided to run in his place.

“She was able to campaign fairly unimpeded,” Denber said. “Nobody expected she would draw the crowd she drew.”

Her popularity grew among Belarusians in the spring and early summer. In June, Tikhanovskaya received an anonymous phone call threatening her children’s life unless she dropped out. She sent her children out of Belarus but stayed in the race.

AP20217237147735
In this Sunday, July 19, 2020, file photo, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, candidate for the presidential elections, reacts during a meeting with her supporters in Minsk, Belarus.

On August 9, the Central Election Commission, which is controlled by Lukashenko’s government, announced that the incumbent president had won a sixth term, crediting him with 80% of the vote. Tikhanovskaya’s team objected, claiming to have won at least 60% in a first-round victory and calling on Lukashenko to begin negotiations.

“It’s hard to know what percentage of the vote she actually got, but clearly more than anyone expected,” Denber said.

Negotiations never came. Instead, the government arrested two members of her campaign’s Coordination Council and offered the others a false choice: Leave the country or else.

“We are dealing with a man who is getting…politically older,” Viačorka, Tikhanovskaya’s senior advisor said about Lukashenko. “Last year… he became anxious, nervous, and absolutely irrational.”

During the height of the election outcry in September, Protasevich left Poland to join Tikhanovskaya in Lithuania, cementing himself even further as Lukashenko’s enemy.

In Belarus, the disputed election set off a mass wave of unprecedented, mostly peaceful protests. Viačorka estimated the movement was one of the biggest progressive movements in Europe in the past 40 years.

But the civil demonstrations drew Lukashenko’s ire. The government dismantled what independent media was left, targeting and arresting journalists throughout the country; officials restricted internet access for hours in August as protests surged; and security forces detained thousands of people, subjecting hundreds to torture, Human Rights Watch reported at the end of 2020.

AP21145635494062
In this Aug. 10, 2020, file photo, protesters carry a wounded man during clashes with police in Minsk, Belarus.

“There are so many people in prison right now,” Denber said in May. “Literally hundreds in jail connected to the protest movement.”

Viačorka believes thousands are still detained.

Experts hope last month’s aviation incident will spur international attention and action

Lukashenko’s post-elections crackdown stoked anger among ordinary Belarusians, making him even more unpopular throughout the country and prompting dissidents to look for new forms of resistance, Viačorka said.

But it was last month’s incident – Protasevich and Sapega’s detainment – that captured the world’s attention.

“Last year’s oppression was eye-opening for Belarusians…that was a wake-up call for Belarusians,” Viačorka said. “Sunday was a wake-up call for the world.”

Denber agreed, saying she hoped the hijacking would “shock people to read into what else is happening” in the European country, including the death of a dissident in prison and the arrest of additional journalists since Protasevich’s arrest.

The US responded to what some countries called a “state-sanctioned hijacking” with fierce statements of condemnation and a re-imposition of full-blocking sanctions against Belarusian enterprises and a handful of key members in the regime. The EU prepared its own package of sanctions targeting the country’s national airline and top aviation officials, as well as the Belarusian economy.

All 27 members of the EU also agreed to bar European airlines from flying through Belarusian airspace and block Belarus’s national airline from flying through or landing in the EU.

But the EU may be in a bind moving forward. As the West moves to isolate Belarus even further, the closer it pushes Lukashenko to Vladimir Putin, his complicated, on-again-off-again Russian ally.

Many top officials believe it was Putin who gave Belarus the green light to divert the Ryanair flight.

AP20299596629941
People with old Belarusian national flags march during an opposition rally to protest the official presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020.

But Tikhanovskaya and Viačorka are pressing international allies to think beyond last month’s incident. On Tuesday, the opposition leader called for more US sanctions, imploring the country to take further action against enterprises and individuals supporting the Lukashenko regime.

“Sanctions should help to stop the violence and help release all of political prisoners,” she said after meeting with senators from the US Foreign Relations Committee.

Viačorka and the opposition who remain free will continue to put pressure on the regime, fighting for new, free elections and democratic reforms, he said. He’s also compelling Western politicians to help.

“I urge Americans and Europeans, be braver, be strong,” he told Insider. “The regime is the problem and if you don’t want North Korea in the the center of Europe, try to do everything to shut it down, please.”

As for Protasevich, his future remains uncertain. Last week, his mother begged the US and EU to help free her son, who faces charges of terrorism and inciting anti-government riots.

On Wednesday, Lukashenko intimated that Protasevich may face the death penalty for his “crimes” in Belarus – the last country in Europe to employ the practice.

But Viačorka knows that his friend is only one prisoner in an ongoing war.

“It’s not about Roman. We don’t want to trade for Roman only,” he said. “He will be released only when all prisoners will be released.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

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

GettyImages 1233067326
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.

Read the original article on Business Insider

The ‘shocking’ arrest of a Belarusian dissident sparked international condemnation, but it falls into a ‘pattern’ of ongoing authoritarianism from Alexander Lukashenko

AP21144289120098
A prominent opponent of Belarus’ authoritarian president Roman Protasevich attends an opposition rally in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, March 25, 2012.

  • Belarusian authorities last month diverted a passenger flight in order to arrest a 26-year-old activist.
  • The move shocked the international community, but experts said the step “falls within a certain pattern” for President Alexander Lukashenko.
  • As the autocrat doubles down in the aftermath, experts say international attention and action are more important than ever.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The state-sanctioned diversion and detainment of Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich last month sparked outrage and reproach around the globe. But experts say the drastic move is emblematic of a larger, more nefarious problem in Eastern Europe: the ongoing corruption and abuses by Belarus’s authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko.

Often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator,” Lukashenko has been in power since 1994, enacting his autocratic rule for nearly as long.

But in 2020, Belarus bore witness to a forceful wave of repression following a highly-contested August election, which prompted widespread protests throughout the country.

Protasevich’s detainment in May, though undeniably shocking, “falls within a certain pattern” for Lukashenko, who continues to pursue a renewed crackdown against any and all critics, according to Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division.

In the days since the hijacking, Lukashenko has doubled down – issuing a travel ban for most residents and releasing a suspect video of a detained Protasevich praising the leader and confessing to crimes.

Now, with all eyes on Belarus, experts say international action is more imperative than ever.

A state-sanctioned hijacking captivates the globe

On May 23, Belarusian authorities sent a fighter jet to divert a Ryanair plane flying from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, citing a bogus bomb threat. The passenger plane backtracked, landing in Minsk, where police officers boarded the jet and arrested Protasevich, a 26-year-old journalist and activist, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, a 23-year-old Russian student.

Passengers on Ryanair Flight 4978 told media outlets that the plane was “just minutes” from its destination in Lithuania when the pilot announced the aircraft would make an emergency landing in the Belarusian capital, after previously flying through the country’s airspace.

In the aftermath of 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.

Franak Viačorka, a senior advisor to exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and a longtime colleague of Protasevich, told Insider he knows his friend was scared.

“He was always afraid of being captured by KGB, it was his nightmare,” Viačorka said.

The two men were together just before Protasevich’s detainment, attending an economic conference in Greece, where Protasevich and Sapega also enjoyed a brief vacation. Weeks earlier, Viačorka said he and Protasevich had discussed the possibility of his capture and made plans for digital and electronic security.

“But we neglected physical security,” Viačorka said. “This was something we did not predict.”

FILE PHOTO: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko gestures as he takes part in the celebrations of Independence Day in Minsk, Belarus July 3, 2020. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko
Belarusian President Lukashenko takes part in the celebrations of Independence Day in Minsk

An ‘excessively paranoid’ leader casts aside legality to apprehend a longtime adversary

Belarusian state media has reported that it was Lukashenko, himself, who gave the “unequivocal order” to ground the plane in Minsk – an audacious act by a powerful man driven by the notion that his enemies are out to get him, according to Denber.

“I think it shows that he wanted to send a message that ‘we will find you no matter where you are,'” Denber said. “No one is safe.”

Viačorka likened Lukashenko’s brazen display of power to an “alpha man” wanting to prove to the world he is in control.

Lukashenko’s moves in the days since seem to confirm Viačorka’s characterization of the aging autocrat. On May 24, Belarusian authorities posted videos of both Protasevich and Sapega confessing to crimes against the country.

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

Opposition leaders and Protasevich’s own father said the videos were made under duress, and what appeared to be an injury on Protasevich’s face sparked concerns of torture.

Then, on Thursday, the young dissident appeared on Belarusian state TV confessing to organizing “mass unrest” and praising his one-time foe.

“I realized that many things [Lukashenko] is criticized for are just attempts to pressure him, and that in many moments he acted like…a man with balls of steel,” Protasevich says in the video.

Ten days after his arrest, the staunch Lukashenko opponent was suddenly praising the autocrat’s regime.

Protasevich, who began his activism at 16, had been detained several times before during his time freelancing for opposition news outlets before moving to Poland after he was forced out of university. As co-founder and editor-in-chief of NEXTA, an opposition Telegram channel, he focused much of his work on leaking videos and documents from the Lukashenko regime.

In 2019, he was drawn back to Belarus, eager to impact real change in Minsk. But Lukashenko’s authoritarian grasp was tightening on the country ahead of the 2020 elections, and anticipating impending danger, Protasevich fled to Warsaw for a second time.

Protasevich and his allies continued their journalism at NEXTA leading up to the presidential election, playing a vital informational role as Lukashenko’s regime shuttered independent media organizations inside the country.

But amid mass protests following the country’s highly contested 2020 election, Protasevich’s journalism evolved into political activism as he began organizing protests against the Belarusian government through NEXTA, which had become the most popular opposition platform in Belarus.

“We’re journalists, but we also have to do something else,” Protasevich told The New York Times in September. “No one else is left. The opposition leaders are in prison.”

Belarus has suffered years of election-cycle repression under Lukashenko’s regime

For nearly three decades, Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with a tight grip reminiscent of the country’s Soviet past. But he wasn’t always an oppositional figure.

“It’s important to remember that [Lukashenko] was quite popular when he was elected in 1994,” Denber said.

In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s fall, economic despair and widespread corruption reigned throughout the region, casting a tremendous uncertainty over Belarus. Lukashenko offered an appealing message and solution, Denber said. He wanted to stabilize the economy, fight corruption, and provide economic and national stability for the people.

“But his autocratic…intent to erode democratic freedom and to very brusquely cast aside human rights emerged very quickly,” Denber said.

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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko emerges from the polling booth after marking his ballot in Belarus’ national referendum in Minsk, Belarus.

By 1996, Lukashenko had already introduced constitutional reforms that strengthened his presidency to the detriment of other government branches and had begun going after his political opponents. By the end of the ’90s, Denber said several of Lukashenko’s political adversaries had disappeared, some presumed murdered.

Thus began a decades-long cycle of election-era repressions targeting independent journalists, human rights defenders, and political protesters. Several election cycles in the aughts sparked protests, Denber said, which in turn, would lead to fierce government crackdowns against civil society.

“There were a lot of pretty dark years,” she said.

After a particularly grim period from 2010 to 2012, Lukashenko’s repression eventually gave way to a slight “loosening up,” Denber said. By 2019, Belarus had released almost all of its political prisoners, and the European Union and the United States both dropped formerly-imposed sanctions against the country.

As the 2020 elections approached, Denber said the government promised a commitment to free and fair elections – it was the first time in years an opposition candidate would be allowed to run a real campaign.

But the August elections proved to be an inflection point of massive consequence for Protasevich, Lukashenko, and the future of Belarus.

A ‘highly contested’ election and a ‘catastrophic’ crackdown

As campaigning for the landmark election began, it was clear Lukashenko was far from ready to acquiesce power. Leading opposition candidates found themselves arrested, oftentimes on bogus charges, while other candidates were simply refused the opportunity to register.

Sergei Tikhanovsky, a well-known blogger faced both a refusal to register his nomination and a short prison sentence for organizing unauthorized protests. So, his wife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya decided to run in his place.

“She was able to campaign fairly unimpeded,” Denber said. “Nobody expected she would draw the crowd she drew.”

Her popularity grew among Belarusians in the spring and early summer. In June, Tikhanovskaya received an anonymous phone call threatening her children’s life unless she dropped out. She sent her children out of Belarus but stayed in the race.

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In this Sunday, July 19, 2020, file photo, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, candidate for the presidential elections, reacts during a meeting with her supporters in Minsk, Belarus.

On August 9, the Central Election Commission, which is controlled by Lukashenko’s government, announced that the incumbent president had won a sixth term, crediting him with 80% of the vote. Tikhanovskaya’s team objected, claiming to have won at least 60% in a first-round victory and calling on Lukashenko to begin negotiations.

“It’s hard to know what percentage of the vote she actually got, but clearly more than anyone expected,” Denber said.

Negotiations never came. Instead, the government arrested two members of her campaign’s Coordination Council and offered the others a false choice: Leave the country or else.

“We are dealing with a man who is getting…politically older,” Viačorka, Tikhanovskaya’s senior advisor said about Lukashenko. “Last year… he became anxious, nervous, and absolutely irrational.”

During the height of the election outcry in September, Protasevich left Poland to join Tikhanovskaya in Lithuania, cementing himself even further as Lukashenko’s enemy.

In Belarus, the disputed election set off a mass wave of unprecedented, mostly peaceful protests. Viačorka estimated the movement was one of the biggest progressive movements in Europe in the past 40 years.

But the civil demonstrations drew Lukashenko’s ire. The government dismantled what independent media was left, targeting and arresting journalists throughout the country; officials restricted internet access for hours in August as protests surged; and security forces detained thousands of people, subjecting hundreds to torture, Human Rights Watch reported at the end of 2020.

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In this Aug. 10, 2020, file photo, protesters carry a wounded man during clashes with police in Minsk, Belarus.

“There are so many people in prison right now,” Denber said in May. “Literally hundreds in jail connected to the protest movement.”

Viačorka believes thousands are still detained.

Experts hope last month’s aviation incident will spur international attention and action

Lukashenko’s post-elections crackdown stoked anger among ordinary Belarusians, making him even more unpopular throughout the country and prompting dissidents to look for new forms of resistance, Viačorka said.

But it was last month’s incident – Protasevich and Sapega’s detainment – that captured the world’s attention.

“Last year’s oppression was eye-opening for Belarusians…that was a wake-up call for Belarusians,” Viačorka said. “Sunday was a wake-up call for the world.”

Denber agreed, saying she hoped the hijacking would “shock people to read into what else is happening” in the European country, including the death of a dissident in prison and the arrest of additional journalists since Protasevich’s arrest.

The US responded to what some countries called a “state-sanctioned hijacking” with fierce statements of condemnation and a re-imposition of full-blocking sanctions against Belarusian enterprises and a handful of key members in the regime. The EU prepared its own package of sanctions targeting the country’s national airline and top aviation officials, as well as the Belarusian economy.

All 27 members of the EU also agreed to bar European airlines from flying through Belarusian airspace and block Belarus’s national airline from flying through or landing in the EU.

But the EU may be in a bind moving forward. As the West moves to isolate Belarus even further, the closer it pushes Lukashenko to Vladimir Putin, his complicated, on-again-off-again Russian ally.

Many top officials believe it was Putin who gave Belarus the green light to divert the Ryanair flight.

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People with old Belarusian national flags march during an opposition rally to protest the official presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020.

But Tikhanovskaya and Viačorka are pressing international allies to think beyond last month’s incident. On Tuesday, the opposition leader called for more US sanctions, imploring the country to take further action against enterprises and individuals supporting the Lukashenko regime.

“Sanctions should help to stop the violence and help release all of political prisoners,” she said after meeting with senators from the US Foreign Relations Committee.

Viačorka and the opposition who remain free will continue to put pressure on the regime, fighting for new, free elections and democratic reforms, he said. He’s also compelling Western politicians to help.

“I urge Americans and Europeans, be braver, be strong,” he told Insider. “The regime is the problem and if you don’t want North Korea in the the center of Europe, try to do everything to shut it down, please.”

As for Protasevich, his future remains uncertain. Last week, his mother begged the US and EU to help free her son, who faces charges of terrorism and inciting anti-government riots.

On Wednesday, Lukashenko intimated that Protasevich may face the death penalty for his “crimes” in Belarus – the last country in Europe to employ the practice.

But Viačorka knows that his friend is only one prisoner in an ongoing war.

“It’s not about Roman. We don’t want to trade for Roman only,” he said. “He will be released only when all prisoners will be released.”

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Putin tells Belarus’ president that criticism over his arrest of journalist is ‘an outburst of emotions’

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Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia March 17, 2021.

  • Belarusian authorities detained a journalist after grounding his Lithuania-bound flight.
  • Belarus is facing sanctions from the European Union and the United States as a result.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin said he supported Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Russian President Vladimir Putin supported Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko as he faces criticism for the arrest of Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old journalist and opposition activist.

Belarusian authorities took Protasevich into custody after having his Lithuania-bound Ryanair flight grounded.

Lukashenko gave an “unequivocal order” to have the passenger plane ground in Minsk.

In a call between the two leaders, Putin said the criticism of Minsk was “an outburst of emotions,” according to a record of the call released by the Kremlin.

“We have things to discuss even without these events. I mean to say that in the first quarter of this year, our trade grew by a considerable 18.4 percent, and Russia remains a key trade and economic partner of Belarus. This is a good trend, and it is important to keep it going along with the Government’s active work,” Putin said.

The support from Putin comes as the European Union agreed to impose sanctions on Belarus. The sanctions include a ban on its airlines from using the airspace and airports of EU member states.

The US also said it will re-impose full blocking sanctions against nine Belarusian state-owned enterprises and the Treasury Department said it will develop a new Executive Order for President Joe Biden to review that will give the US more power to impose sanctions on Lukashenko’s regime.

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Detained Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich’s mother begs America, EU leaders to save him

The mother of detained Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich, Natalia Protasevich attends a press conference at the Belarusian House Foundation on May 27, 2021 in Warsaw, Poland.
The mother of detained Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich, Natalia Protasevich attends a press conference at the Belarusian House Foundation on May 27, 2021 in Warsaw, Poland.

The mother of detained Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich is begging the European Union and the United States to help free her son.

Natalia Protasevich and her husband, Dzmitry Protasevich, spoke about their son at a press conference at the Belarusian House Foundation in Warsaw, Poland, on Thursday, according to Radio Poland.

While asking for help from the EU and US, they also said their son has been tortured while in custody.

Roman Protasevich, one of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s most vocal critics, was detained on May 23 after being removed from a Ryanair flight and accused of terrorism and inciting anti-government riots.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

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YouTube said it removed 2 ads featuring videos of Belarus hostages’ admission videos: report

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

YouTube took action this week after advertisements that featured videos posted by Belarusian authorities of detained journalist and dissident Roman Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapega ran on the platform, according to Rest of World.

Protasevich and Sapega were arrested in Minsk on Sunday after Belarusian officials sent a fighter jet to divert a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius the couple was traveling on, sparking international outrage. In the following days, Belarusian authorities released videos of both Protasevich and Sapega talking about organizing mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko last year.

Protasevich’s father, Dzmitry, told Reuters on Tuesday his son’s statements in the video appeared coerced.

“I think he was forced. It’s not his words, it’s not his intonation of speech – he is acting very reserved, and you can tell he is nervous,” he said.

Following the release of the videos, several Twitter users noticed YouTube ads that showed footage from the Belarusian-released statements from Protasevich and Sapega.

Rest of World traced the ads to a pro-Belarusian government channel whose name translates to “Belarus, country for life.” The patriotic channel has fewer than 2,000 subscribers and features content praising Belarusian security forces and mocking opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Protasevich and Sapega’s videos are both featured on the channel as well.

Screenshots posted on social media suggest the advertisements directed viewers to a Telegram channel of pro-government content with nearly 80,000 subscribers, according to Rest of World. Another Twitter user shared a screenshot of an apparent advertisement that featured Sapega’s confession video as well.

A spokesperson for YouTube’s parent company, Google, told Rest of World’s Louise Matsakis that the company had taken action against both of the advertisements for violating its content policies.

“YouTube has always had strict policies around the type of content that is allowed to serve as ads on our platform,” a spokesperson told Matsakis. “We quickly remove any ads that violate these policies.”

Google’s publicly available guidelines on “Sensitive Events” say it does not allow ads that “potentially profit from or exploit a sensitive event with significant social, cultural, or political impact, such as civil emergencies, natural disasters, public health emergencies, terrorism, and related activities, conflict, or mass acts of violence.”

The platform has previously come under fire for both its content and advertising practices. The site has traditionally allowed political advertisement, though Google temporarily banned all political ads after the 2020 election.

According to Rest of World, social media users last year complained online about advertisements on YouTube promoting Belarusian government propaganda that appeared to come from the same “Belarus, country for life” channel. The company reportedly did not respond to Matsakis’ questions about any past action against the channel.

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The girlfriend of the detained Belarusian dissident, who was also arrested when their flight was diverted, has appeared in an apparent confession video

Sofia Sapega
The video released of Sofia Sapega.

  • Belarusisan dissident Roman Protasevich’s girlfriend was also arrested when their flight was intercepted.
  • A video released Tuesday showed Sofia Sapega appearing to confess to editing a Telegram channel.
  • Opposition politicians in Belarus said the video was likely made under duress.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The girlfriend of detained Belarusian dissident Roman Protasevich has appeared in an apparent confession video.

Sofia Sapega gave her name, age, and said she edited a Telegram channel that “publishes private information about internal affairs officers,” according to a Sky News translation of the video.

Opposition politicians said the video was likely made under duress.

The video appeared on a Telegram channel supportive of Belarus’ president, Sky News reported.

Sapega, a 23-year-old Russian national, was traveling with Protasevich from Greece to Vilnius on Sunday when Belarus authorities reported a fake security threat and diverted the plane to Minsk. The couple was later detained.

The Russian news outlet Novaya Gazeta says Sapega could face criminal charges.

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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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