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Why Belarus Went To Such Lengths To Arrest Journalist Roman Protasevich


The European Union has called on all EU-based airlines to avoid flying over Belarusian airspace. The move follows Sunday's incident when Belarus forced a commercial flight to land at the capital, Minsk. That resulted in the apprehension of opposition journalist Roman Protasevich. EU leaders meeting in Brussels said they also wanted to see Belarusian airlines banned from flying over EU airspace, and they plan to adopt further targeted economic sanctions on Belarusian officials.


Meanwhile, that opposition activist has appeared on state media. Roman Protasevich said he is confessing to inciting civil unrest and is cooperating with investigators. His supporters say he appeared to be acting under duress. On Sunday, Protasevich was traveling on a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania. And as the flight passed through Belarusian airspace, it was ordered to land at the capital, Minsk, and Protasevich was arrested. NPR's Lucian Kim reports on why the authorities went to such lengths to catch him.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Even before departing the Athens airport, Roman Protasevich messaged colleagues that he had noticed a suspicious man following him and taking pictures before he and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, got on the flight. When the plane abruptly altered course to make the unplanned landing in Minsk, fellow passengers recalled him saying he would be executed in Belarus.


SVIATLANA TSIKHANOUSKAYA: He's considered to be, like, private enemy of Lukashenko, so we're really afraid not only for his freedom but for his life.

KIM: That's exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya speaking to Britain's Sky News.


TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I'm sure that he's in awful circumstances. I'm sure that he's being tortured.

KIM: Hours later, a video of Protasevich appeared on Belarusian pro-government social media.


ROMAN PROTASEVICH: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: Protasevich confessed to having incited mass disorder.


PROTASEVICH: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: He said he was cooperating with investigators, was in good health and being treated well. Roman Protasevich was born in 1995, a year after Belarus' leader, Alexander Lukashenko, took power. Protasevich became a political activist as a teenager and later was the editor of Nexta, a Belarusian news channel on the messaging app Telegram. He left Belarus in 2019. And when massive anti-government protests broke out last year, his Telegram channel became a key resource for opposition activists to coordinate and plan their actions. Belarusian authorities responded by charging Protasevich with inciting hatred and mass disorder and putting him on a terrorist list.

VALERY KAVALEUSKI: He's an example of a very principled and very effective journalist who knows how to collect information and how to deliver this information to the audience.

KIM: Valery Kavaleuski is Tsikhanouskaya's foreign policy adviser and personally knows Protasevich.

KAVALEUSKI: He's been doing this terrific job for millions of people. But at the same time, he comes across as very humble, as very intelligent, as very unassuming. So yeah, he's a very likable person.

KIM: Kavaleuski says Lukashenko feels able to take actions like the diversion of the Ryanair flight because international sanctions against his regime have been too weak.

KATIA GLOD: Lukashenko is really waging a war now against any dissent, be it inside the country or outside of the country.

KIM: That's Katia Glod, a fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington. She says Protasevich's arrest was motivated by both personal revenge and an attempt to silence all critical media.

GLOD: They pose very direct threats to the regime because they are the ones who mobilize the population, and then they inform people in Belarus.

KIM: Lukashenko has succeeded for now in crushing Belarus' protest movement, she says. But even more repression will not help him restore his legitimacy.

Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.


Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.