With Roman Protasevich’s pardon, Belarus fuels a story of betrayal
When Belarusian dictator Aleksandr G. Lukashenko sent a MIG fighter jet to intercept a Ryanair airliner carrying an exiled anti-government activist and his girlfriend two years ago, he turned the young dissident into a martyr in the fight for democracy.
The plane, flying from Greece to Lithuania, was forced to land in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, after authorities in the region falsely claimed there was a bomb on board. The episode sparked international outrage and shone a spotlight on Belarusian activist Roman Protasevich, now 28, and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, 25.
This week Mr Lukashenko rewrote the script, turning what had been a tale of democratic ardor and young love thwarted by tyranny into a dark tale of political and romantic betrayal.
Arrested with Ms Sapega in May 2021 at Minsk airport, Mr Protasevich on Monday received a rare pardon from a government not known for its leniency. Video released by state media showed him standing in a leafy park as he expressed his thanks for the “good news” and said he was “incredibly grateful” to Mr Lukashenko, whom he had once compared to Hitler.
He had previously dumped Ms Sapega to marry another woman, posting a photo online last year of himself kissing his unidentified new bride. How he met her while still in the clutches of a Belarusian security apparatus that keeps many of its prisoners in solitary confinement has never been explained.
With everything Mr Protasevich has said or done publicly since his arrest two years ago filtered through Belarusian state media and overseen by security officials, it is impossible to establish with certainty whether he really changed sides. Nor, if he did, what pressures he faced while in detention from a regime that has long tortured political prisoners.
But there is broad consensus among other opposition activists that Mr Protasevich has turned against them.
“Please don’t praise him as a freedom fighter. He is a very dark character in this whole story,” Andrei Sannikov, an opposition leader in exile, said by telephone. “We never want to hear his name again. He betrayed his girlfriend. He betrayed his friends and colleagues. He betrayed the entire democratic movement.
Franak Viacorka, chief of staff to exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, accused Mr Protasevich of obtaining his pardon by collaborating with the fearsome Belarusian secret police agency, which has clung to his name of the Soviet era, the KGB.
Mr. Protasevich’s transition from pro-democracy martyr hero to widely reviled collaborator is “a very important story that teaches us how cruel regimes like Lukashenko’s are,” Mr. Viacorka said in a statement to The New York Times. .
“We don’t know what torture they used against him. We saw it on TV – it was just destroyed. He looked very miserable, sick, beaten, and he shouldn’t have been there.
Prior to his arrest, Mr Protasevich worked from exile in Lithuania and Poland as an editor at Nexta, a channel on the Telegram messaging app that played a significant role in staging huge protests. street that swept Belarus in 2020 after Mr Lukashenko claimed an implausible landslide victory, his sixth, in a presidential election widely seen as rigged.
Facing a possible death sentence for treason, Mr Protasevich quickly abandoned his anti-Lukashenko fervor after his arrest in 2021.
He appeared on Belarusian state television in June that year with bruises on his wrists and what looked like a bruise on his head, confessing to organizing anti-government protests and calling for a “neutral stance” towards Mr. Lukashenko. His family, supporters and Western officials said at the time that he made the remarks under duress.
Mr. Viacorka said this week that while he felt some sympathy for Mr. Protasevich, “I don’t know if I can forgive him” because “if you collaborate, you put tens or maybe hundreds of people in danger”.
But he cautioned against judging Mr Protasevich too harshly. “I don’t know how I would personally behave in such a situation,” he said, “we have to be very careful when evaluating the behavior of either person.”
Doubts about Mr Protasevich have been growing for months, particularly since news emerged last year that he had been released from a grim remand center under house arrest while his girlfriend Ms Sapega had was sentenced to six years in prison.
In a cold response to Ms Sapega’s incarceration in May 2022, Mr Protasevich appeared to throw his former partner under the bus, saying in a blog post that she had been “convicted for her actual activities and not for having had a relationship with me”. .” Six years in prison, he said, was “far from the most terrible sentence possible”.
Anyway, he added, he had already separated from Ms Sapega and married an unnamed local woman. He posted a color photo of himself with his new bride, who wore a bright yellow dress. Her face had been blurred to hide her identity. She was holding a bouquet of pink roses.
While Ms Sapega has been held incommunicado since the Ryanair plane landed in Minsk in 2021, Mr Protasevich has been allowed to speak publicly at regular intervals, usually at tightly scripted events in Minsk under the eye of security officials, and through state news. media.
In June last year, shortly after Ms Sapega was jailed, he told Belta, the state news agency, that detention in Belarus was now “the safest place for me” because “many many people consider me a traitor”, although he denied betraying any of his former colleagues.
Belta said he “made an informed decision to cooperate with the investigation.”
Family and friends said Mr Protasevich’s first appearances in Minsk suggested he had been beaten. But he later appeared in public looking relaxed and unscathed. He adopted an increasingly pro-government tone as he renounced his views and began to criticize Mr Lukashenko’s enemies.
A Belarusian court in May sentenced Mr Protasevich to eight years in prison for crimes including acts of terrorism and insulting the president, but the pardon announced on Monday suggested he would not spend any more time behind bars.
Sergei Bespalov, a Belarusian opposition activist and blogger, claimed after Mr Protasevich’s sentencing in May that “dozens of people were imprisoned because of his actions”. He added in a video: “He just dumped them.”
Mr Sannikov, the head of the European Civil Campaign of Belarus, an opposition organization run from Poland, and a former political prisoner in Mr Lukashenko’s prisons, said Mr Protasevich’s relatively lenient treatment compared to that of his former girlfriend had confirmed the suspicions. long held by some opposition activists.
“He was a lackey from the start,” Mr Sannikov said. “We never trusted him. I told friends not to deal with him.
Nexta, the opposition Telegram channel that Mr Protasevich edited, he said, “often gave mixed instructions” to protesters in Minsk and “made people run around the city aimlessly”. Nexta also published blatantly false information which the Belarusian authorities exploited in an attempt to discredit the opposition.
Exiled political groups often fall into infighting and point fingers at each other, a phenomenon Mr Lukashenko has encouraged by sending agents to infiltrate and disrupt the activities of opponents outside Belarus. His critics inside the country have almost all been arrested and sentenced to heavy sentences.
Maria Kolesnikova, a fierce opponent of Mr. Lukashenko who refused to go into exile, was imprisoned for 11 years in September 2021 after a trial behind closed doors. The crackdown on dissent continued this year when Ales Bialiatski, 60, a veteran activist who shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Mr. Protasevich’s pardon, Mr. Viacorka said, is part of a long and dirty game by the Belarusian authorities to crush the opposition – through brute force at home and more devious methods abroad. According to Viasna, a group that monitors repression in Belarus, the country currently has 1,525 political prisoners.
“In Lukashenko’s eyes, Roman became loyal, obedient, and he wanted every political prisoner to behave like Roman,” Viacorka said. opposition figures like Mrs Tikhanovskaya.
For Mr. Sannikov, however, the whole episode holds another lesson: “There are a lot of people who are being praised who have not lived up to expectations. Do not create heroes. Just be a decent person.
Tomas Dapkus contributed reporting from Vilnius, Lithuania.