The unprecedented wave of demonstrations swept across Belarus after authorities claimed Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, won a landslide against main opposition rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya despite a vote marred by widespread fraud.
Nexta shared crucial open collaboration information and videos of brutal crackdowns, sometimes one of the few sources of information available amid government internet shutdowns.
Protasevich’s online activities drew the ire of the Belarusian authorities, and hundreds of other opposition figures fled the country as officials aggressively cracked down on the unrest and began a broad campaign to persecute the activists.
In May 2021, Protasevich was traveling from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, on a Ryanair flight with his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. the flight was deflected and landed in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, after the Belarusian authorities falsely claimed that there was a bomb on board. Upon her arrival, Protasevich was immediately arrested. The European Union condemned the act as “hijacking” and “piracy” and banned flights over Belarusian airspace.
Protasevich’s arrest and prosecution caused great concern among human rights groups. A day after the blogger was taken off the plane, Telegram channels published a short video in which he appeared with abrasions and bruises on his face and confessed to organizing “mass riots.” Academics, family members and rights activists saying there was little doubt at the time that he had been forced to confess.
Belarusian law enforcement has a history of using intimidation and coercion to extract forced confessions, recordings of which are then shared with state media and expanded upon by other pro-government sources.
Protasevich spent the first weeks of his arrest in a KGB detention center. He later reappeared on state television in a lengthy interview with a television reporter friend of Lukashenko’s. Protasevich listed other bloggers running online outlets with counter-information to state media, saying he had been fully cooperating with authorities.
Shortly after the interview, Protasevich was released from the detention center and placed under house arrest. He gave several interviews, repeating official Minsk talking points, portraying the protests as Western plots to overthrow the government, and praised Lukashenko.
“I am very happy… of course, I have so many emotions right now, it is difficult to form thoughts… but first of all, of course, I am very grateful to the country and personally to the president for this decision, and I hope it will only get better from here.” , Protasevich said Monday in a clip shared by Belta, the government news agency.
In early May, he was sentenced to eight years in prison. Two other bloggers in the Nexta case, Yan Rudik and Stepan Putilo, were tried in absentia and sentenced to 19 and 20 years in a high-security prison, respectively. Nexta was labeled a terrorist organization, and the three activists were charged with a series of criminal offences, including “conspiring to unconstitutionally seize state power in Belarus” and “insulting the President of Belarus.”
Sapega, a Russian national, was accused of running another Telegram channel called “Black Book of Belarus”, which published personal information about the country’s security forces. She was sentenced in 2022 to six years in prison. Last month, the Belarusian Prosecutor General’s Office granted their Russian counterparts’ request to transfer Sapega to Russia after pleas from her family.
“Raman Pratasevich said that Lukashenka forgave him. After the arrest, Raman was forced to collaborate with the KGB; he praised Lukashenka,” said politician Franak Viacorka, an adviser to Lukashenko’s election challenger Tikhanovskaya, using alternate spellings of the names. “Forgiveness does not mean freedom: He is under the hood. Meanwhile, the regime intensifies the pressure on political prisoners. Dozens of them disappeared.”
Following the pardon, the reaction from Russian pundits, who, like Lukashenko, described protests against the authoritarian leader’s re-election as a Western ploy, inadvertently confirmed law enforcement pressure tactics used against the dissident, the officials said. supporters of Protasevich.
“Protasevich was pardoned because he betrayed everyone, including his girlfriend, humiliated himself exactly to the extent that he was ordered to, did not make a fuss and was generally like a bunny,” the top Russian television propagandist wrote on her blog. Daisy Simonyan. “Thus demonstrating to the outside world the true face of any leader of any color revolution: the face of a scared cat.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin backed Lukashenko in 2020 by offering to send riot police and provide a $1.5 billion loan to a beleaguered ally weeks after mass protests. Backing from Russia helped Lukashenko regain control, but being in debt to the Kremlin weakened his position in lengthy negotiations over deeper integration with Moscow, where Lukashenko has performed a fragile balancing act to maintain a semblance of independence without alienating himself. to Putin.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Belarus has allowed Russian forces to use its territory as a staging ground for attacks, and the two leaders meet frequently, most recently during May 9 Victory Day celebrations in Moscow. On Monday, Lukashenko announced bilateral talks with Putin later this week to “resolve issues that should not be in our relations at all.”
“As the government informs me, well, there are almost no problems (in relations with the Russian Federation). I have little faith in this. I see from the situation that there are still problems, some inconsistencies. Sometimes there is bureaucracy, ”Lukashenko said in a meeting with his ambassador to Russia.
Also on Monday, Eduard Babaryka, the son of former presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka, stood trial in Minsk while the whereabouts of his father, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2021 on charges he rejected for political reasons, remained unknown. His cases are among thousands of proceedings launched against Belarusian protesters and activists since 2020, according to rights group Viasna.
“(The case of Protasevich) is a sad human story,” wrote Belarusian journalist Anton Orekh on his Telegram blog. “While some people in Belarus receive hellish sentences and rot in prison, he was pardoned. But it’s hard to criticize a person for not becoming a hero if you weren’t there. And there is no desire to be in their place.
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