KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Raman Pratasevich has been part of the Belarus political opposition for over a decade and has long feared the authorities would try to abduct him, even though he was living abroad. The 26-year-old dissident journalist couldn’t imagine, however, just how far they would go.
Pratasevich, who ran a channel on a messaging app used to organize demonstrations against the iron-fisted rule of President Alexander Lukashenko, left his homeland in 2019 to try to escape the reach of the Belarusian KGBand ended up in Lithuania. He was charged in absentia for inciting riots, which carries a sentence of 15 years in prison.
As he was returning Sunday to the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, from Greece with his girlfriend aboard a Ryanair jet, Belarusian flight controllers told the crew to divert to Minsk, citing a bomb threat. Lukashenko scrambled a fighter jet to escort the plane.
When it became apparent where the plane was going, a clearly shaken Pratasevich told fellow passengers that he feared execution in Belarus, which still carries out capital punishment.
Pratasevich was put on a list of people that Belarus considers terrorists, which could bring the death penalty. He had even joked about it before his arrest, using morbid humor on his Twitter account to describe himself as “the first journalist-terrorist in history.”
Belarus was known as a sleepy place dating back to Soviet times, with few demonstrations and a population that endured Lukashenko’s repressive rule for more than a quarter-century.
But Pratasevich and other dissidents of his generation sought to change that.
“He has succeeded in waking up Belarusians, connecting the discontent that was smoldering within the society with the new technologies, which led to unprecedented rallies and provoked the dictator’s anger,” said Franak Viachorka, a longtime friend.
After the plane diversion, which outraged leaders abroad described as akin to air piracy, the European Union barred Belarusian airlines from its airspace and airports, and advised its carriers to skirt Belarus. It is weighing other sanctions that could target top Belarusian companies.
On Friday, the mayor of a district in Romania’s capital of Bucharest announced support for a proposal to rename a street where the Belarus Embassy is located for the young Pratasevich.
When he was 16, Pratasevich became a member of the Young Front, a youth organization that helped organize anti-Lukashenko’s protests after the 2010 election. He was detained by police several times and eventually expelled from his high school in Minsk.
As a journalism student, he worked for the Belarusian service of the U.S.-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other outlets.
Pratasevich joined the protests in neighboring Ukraine in 2014 that ousted its Moscow-leaning president, sustaining an injury in a clash with police. He was wounded again the next year during fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Lukashenko and other Belarusian officials alleged Pratasevich fought as a “mercenary” in eastern Ukraine, but Andriy Biletskiy, who led the Azov volunteer battalion in the region, insisted Pratasevich was working as a journalist there.
Pratasevich was expelled from Belarusian State University in 2018 as punishment for his cooperation with independent media, and he left the country the next year amid growing official pressure.
He shot to fame in 2020 when he and another young journalist, Stsiapan Putsila, set up a channel on the Telegram messaging app called Nexta, which sounds like the word for “somebody” in Belarusian.
It became immensely popular as massive protests swept Belarus after Lukashenko’s reelection to a sixth term in the August balloting that was widely seen as fraudulent.
The Nexta channel boasted nearly 2 million subscribers in the nation of 9.3 million, and was an important tool in mounting the demonstrations, the largest of which drew up to 200,000 people. It would provide information about the location of the protest, give directions for bypassing security cordons, and carried photos, video and other content from users about the police crackdown.
“We have become a voice for every Belarusian,” Pratasevich said at the time. He said Nexta had only 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, brave and bright.”
Infuriated Belarus authorities labeled Nexta as “extremist,” a designation that carries criminal charges against anyone who shares its materials on the internet. Pratasevich and Putsila were charged with inciting mass disturbances and fanning social hatred.
In an interview in Warsaw with The Associated Press, Putsila said this week that there have been “thousands of threats that our office will be blown up, that all of us will 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 Sunday with him, was studying at a Vilnius university.
Pratasevich knew the risks of his activism, even living abroad. Fearing abduction, he frequently changed his residence and tried to avoid walking alone late at night.
Despite the threats and concerns about the Belarusian authorities, Putsila still said he was shocked by Lukashenko’s move to divert the plane. “The regime has started doing unthinkable things that are against law and logic,” he said.
In a speech Wednesday, Lukashenko accused Pratasevich of fomenting a “bloody rebellion” in Belarus, in conjunction with foreign spy agencies.
Pratasevich appeared after his arrest in a video from detention that was broadcast on Belarusian state TV. Speaking rapidly and in a monotone, he said he was confessing to staging mass disturbances.
Watching from Poland, where they now live, his parents said the confession seemed to be coerced. His mother, Natalia Pratasevich said her son’s nose appeared to have been broken and it looked like makeup had been applied to cover facial bruises.
“I want you to hear my cry, the cry of my soul,” she told reporters in an emotional appeal Thursday. “I am begging you, help me free my son!”
Earlier this month, the government retaliated against Pratasevich’s father, a retired military officer, stripping him of his rank along with dozens of other opposition-minded officers.
The dissident journalist’s friend, Viachorka, said Pratasevich “feared getting into the KGB’s hands,” and once they even talked about a scenario in which the security force commandeered an aircraft but quickly dismissed it.
“We were joking once, discussing what we would do if the KGB gets us,” Viachorka said. “For example, if they hijack a plane. But he couldn’t believe that such thing could happen, dismissing it as the stuff from movies, from Hollywood.”
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Vanessa Gera and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed.