When a Belarusian warplane intercepted a Ryanair passenger jet over Belarus on Sunday, one man on board immediately knew he faced mortal danger.
Roman Protasevich, 26, was flying back from a holiday in Greece with his Russian girlfriend when the Soviet-made MiG-29 fighter jet ordered the plane to make a U-turn on its course to Lithuania.
The pretext given to the Ryanair pilots was a bomb threat, but Protasevich was already busily removing his laptop from an overhead locker to hand to his law student girlfriend Sofia Sapega along with his smartphone.
Protasevich, who helped organise massive rallies against Belarusian strongman President Alexander Lukashenko last year, begged the cabin crew not to make the stop in Minsk, telling them ‘they will kill me.’
Lukashenko – ‘Europe’s last dictator’ – personally gave the order for the 170 passengers to be brought down hundreds of miles from their final destination.
Protasevich was immediately singled out by the security forces on landing and pulled aside as a sniffer dog was used to carry out the masquerade of searching for an explosive.
The 26-year-old is the co-founder and former editor of the social media channel NEXTA, which became a Belarusian phenomenon during the massive protests and violent unrest which rocked Lukashenko’s government last year.
Broadcast on the encrypted messaging app, Telegram, Protasevich used the platform to fearlessly spread the word about Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown and rallied thousands onto the streets of the country.
Roman Protasevich, 26, (pictured) was flying back from a holiday in Greece with his Russian girlfriend on Sunday when their Ryanair plane was ordered to make a U-turn by a Soviet-made MiG-29 fighter jet
Opposition journalist Roman Protasevich’s girlfriend Sofia Sapega who was also detained
Opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, (pictured) was hauled off the plane and arrested with his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, after the flight from Greece to Lithuania made the emergency landing in Minsk
Ryanair flight FR4978 had been flying from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania when it was escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet to Belarus amid fake reports of an IED on board. It was forced to make an emergency landing at Minsk Airport, where authorities arrested dissident journalist Roman Protasevich
Lukashenko ordered blackouts of mainstream social media sites like Facebook and Twitter meaning the populace turned to channels like Protasevich’s for information about protests.
Protasevich’s channel gained international recognition for its relentless coverage of the crackdown which saw protester beaten mercilessly in the streets by Lukashenko’s forces.
Many of the images and videos which first appeared on NEXTA would be broadcast by international media.
He fled the country in 2019 fearing arrest as Belarus rounded up hundreds of opposition figures, but has continued to roil the regime with his activism in neighbouring Lithuania, where the opposition leadership live in exile.
In November, his name was added to an official list of Belarusian terrorists and accused of inciting mass riots while working at NEXTA.
As a teenager, Protasevich had first become a target of law enforcement when he was expelled from his prestigious school for attending a rally in 2011.
He was later thrown out of a journalism course at the Minsk State University.
On Sunday, he was returning from an economic conference in Greece that had been attended by Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
Protasevich was with his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, a law student at the European Humanities University based in Lithuania.
As it was announced the plane was landing in Minsk, he was seen standing up and opening the overhead locker.
Protasevich immediately started unpacking his bag and handed a laptop and phone to his girlfriend Sapega – but she too was arrested.
Passengers described him as looking ‘scared’ and ‘sad’ as he was immediately pulled to one side on arrival as police searched his luggage with sniffer dogs.
Authorities claimed that there was a bomb threat but this later turned out to be bogus.
Police officers detained Roman Protasevich after he was attempting to cover a rally in Minsk, Belarus on 26 March 2017
Protasevich was returning from an economic conference in Greece that had been attended by Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (pictured)
Belarus accuses Protasevich of inciting public disorder and social hatred, charges which carry punishment of more than 12 years in prison.
He could also face the death penalty if accused and convicted of terrorism.
Protasevich was aware of this danger as the plane started to descend, begging the cabin crew not to follow the order, saying ‘they will kill me’ and telling another passenger on the ground that he faced ‘the death penalty.’
He had been working as editor-in-chief of a Belarusian political outlet hosted on the Telegram messaging app called ‘Belarus of the Brain’ which has around a quarter of a million subscribers.