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Who Is Raman Pratasevich, And Why Is Belarus Targeting Him?

Raman Pratasevich stands in a bus at the airport in Minsk after his plane was diverted on May 23.
Raman Pratasevich stands in a bus at the airport in Minsk after his plane was diverted on May 23.

Upon learning last year that a warrant in Belarus had been issued for his arrest for allegedly organizing mass anti-government protests through a popular Telegram channel he helped administer, independent Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich appeared unsurprised about the lengths the authorities would go to stifle dissenting views.

"If people are being sent to jail for expressing a different opinion," the former Nexta-Live editor in chief told Current Time from an undisclosed location in Poland in November, "then what can be said about possibly the biggest Belarusian media outlet?"

On May 23, after Belarusian security agents allegedly used a bomb hoax to force the commercial airliner carrying Pratasevich to Lithuania to be diverted to Belarus, fellow passengers said the 26-year-old journalist became visibly panicked.

After landing in Minsk, an unidentified traveler told the Latvian news site Delfi that Pratasevich was immediately detained and his luggage spread out on the tarmac and searched.

"We asked him what was happening," the passenger said, describing Pratasevich as "trembling." "He said who he was and added: 'They’ll execute me here.'"

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So what had this young blogger turned so-called digital revolutionary -- a co-recipient of the European Parliament's 2020 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought -- done to draw the wrath of the Belarusian authorities?

Pratasevich was a co-founder and editor in chief of Nexta-Live, a Belarus-focused news channel that had earned a reputation as a trustworthy alternative source of information and had attracted the ire of Belarus's authoritarian government.

Belarusian strongman leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)
Belarusian strongman leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)

The outlet's hard-hitting coverage -- often based on exclusive materials provided from within government circles and also featuring videos that exposed the brutality of strongman leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime -- had made it a go-to source for Belarusian political coverage by the time the country's contentious presidential election rolled around last August 9.

When Lukashenka was declared the winner of a sixth straight term in office, protesters who believed the vote was stolen were ready -- in part due to information provided by Nexta, whose use of the Telegram messaging platform allowed it to circumvent government efforts to restrict online information.

As mass protests became a daily feature of life in Belarus, Nexta published times and places for demonstrators to meet, suggestions for countering and avoiding police, and instructions to keep the movement peaceful.

For their efforts, demonstrators were met with a brutal crackdown by the Belarusian authorities, resulting in the arrests of tens of thousands of civilians and shocking scenes of police violence that were made available to the outside world in part due to Nexta.

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Journalists not working for state-run media were also targeted through arrests and police violence.

Pratesevich had already left Belarus in 2019 to escape pressure from the authorities, and he left Nexta-Live in September 2020 to work for another popular Telegram channel.

But as the protests continued, Nexta-Live and its logo were declared extremist by a Belarusian court and orders came for its distribution to be restricted.

The news site merely switched its logo and carried on under the safety afforded by Telegram's encryption features, but Pratasevich was placed on a terrorist watch list and charged with organizing mass disorder, disrupting public order, and inciting social hatred.

Pratasevich himself posted a copy of an official Belarusian list of terrorists on which his name appeared and has rejected all the charges as politically motivated.

"This [arrest order] sounds like a special prize from the state authorities," Pratasevich told Current Time by video link from Poland on November 19 after hearing about the government's move.

"It seems to me that the [state] power now considers nearly any expression of a different opinion in general to be a crime," Pratasevich told the Russian-language outlet operated by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "We can see it from the statistics of the detained, from the statistics of the people who are currently being held in jails, and so on. "

'Politically Motivated'

In addressing the detentions of at least 33,000 people, Amnesty International accused the Belarusian authorities of launching "hundreds of politically motivated criminal cases against political opposition members, protesters, and their supporters."

In many cases, the global rights watchdog said, "they detained, beat, fined, or deported journalists who covered the protests and stripped them of their accreditation."

By then, Pratasevich was working for Belarus of the Brain -- another Telegram news channel also banned by the government.

Pratasevich is also a former recipient of the Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship, awarded jointly by RFE/RL and the Czech Foreign Ministry to continue the former Czech president and dissident's promotion of open societies through journalism.

In being named a winner of the award in 2017-18, when he was still a journalism student at Belarus State University, Pratasevich was credited with having "live-streamed mass protests in Belarus that were otherwise not reported by the country’s tightly controlled media."

According to Media Solidarity, a group that supports Belarusian journalists, Pratasevich had recently moved from Poland to Vilnius, where self-exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya is based.

He had traveled to Greece recently to cover a visit there by Tsikhanouskaya.

Dzmitry Pratasevich, the journalist's father, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service on May 24 that he first learned of his son's arrest on Telegram.

"This information was then confirmed that our son had been detained," he said. "Gradually, information appeared on TV channels, and we learned about it."

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The journalist's parents, who moved abroad eight months ago to escape to pressure in Belarus, were aware their son was in Greece but did not know the details of his return to Vilnius.

"He did not fully inform us about all his movements, probably did not want many to know where he was," said Dzmitry Pratasevich, a former soldier who said he was recently stripped of his rank due his time outside the country.

Raman Pratasevich had been open about the fact that his parents did not always share his views, and his father admitted to RFE/RL that "we feared political persecution for our son's activities."

However, Dzmitry Pratasevich said of his son's work, "eventually life showed that he was right.”

“As it turns out, all the people who are fighting for freedom and independence in our country are right,” he said.

He said he believes Lukashenka's regime is targeting his son because "the current government is afraid of independent journalists, freedom of speech, afraid that its actions will become known to the world community."

But by conducting operations such as the one that nabbed his son -- an incident that has been decried as a "hijacking" of a commercial airliner by EU officials -- "they forget that they show the whole global community what methods they use."

"They are completely inhumane -- torture, detentions," Dzmitry Pratasevich said of the tactics used by the state to stamp out dissent. "It’s all very sad."