When Belarusian dictator Aleksandr G. Lukashenko sent a MIG fighter jet to intercept a Ryanair passenger plane carrying an exiled anti-government activist and his girlfriend two years ago, he turned the young dissident into a martyr of the struggle for democracy.
The plane, flying from Greece to Lithuania, was forced to land in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, after authorities there falsely claimed there was a bomb on board. The episode sparked international outrage and shined an admiring spotlight on the Belarusian activist, Roman Protasevichnow 28, and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega25.
This week, Lukashenko rewrote the script, turning what had been a story of democratic zeal and young love thwarted by tyranny into a dark tale of political and romantic betrayal.
Arrested together with Sapega in May 2021 at Minsk airport, Mr. Protasevich received a rare pardon on Monday from a government not known for its mercy. A video released by state media showed him standing in a leafy park as he expressed thanks for the “great news” and declared himself “insanely grateful” to Mr Lukashenko, whom he once compared to Hitler.
He had previously dumped Sapega to marry another woman, and posted a photo online last year of him 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 that Mr. What Protasevich has said or done publicly since his arrest two years ago filtered through Belarus’s state media and was monitored by security officials, it cannot be determined with certainty whether he has indeed switched sides. Nor, if he did, the pressures he endured while imprisoned from a regime that has long tortured political prisoners.
But there is broad agreement 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 figure in this whole story,” Andrei Sannikov, an exiled opposition leader, said by phone. “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, the chief of staff of exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, accused Protasevich of securing his pardon by collaborating with Belarus’s fearsome secret police agency, which has stuck to its Soviet name, the KGB
Mr. Protasevich’s transition from a martyred pro-democracy hero to a widely reviled collaborator is “a very important story that teaches us how cruel regimes like Lukashenko’s are,” Viacorka said in a statement to The New York Times.
“We don’t know what torture they used on him. We saw him on TV – he was just destroyed. He looked very unhappy, sick, beaten and he shouldn’t have been there.”
Before his arrest, Protasevich worked from exile in Lithuania and Poland as an editor for Nexta, a channel on the messaging app Telegram that played an important role in organizing large street protests which swept across Belarus in 2020 after Lukashenko claimed an unlikely landslide victoryhis sixth, in a presidential election widely regarded as rigged.
Facing a possible death sentence for treason, Protasevich quickly dropped his anti-Lukashenko fervor after his arrest in 2021.
He appeared on Belarusian state television in June of the same year with bruises on his wrists and what appeared to be a bruise on his head, admitted to organizing anti-government protests and called for a “neutral stance” towards Lukashenko. His family, supporters and Western officials said at the time that he had made the comments under duress.
Mr. Viacorka said this week that while he felt some sympathy for Mr. Protasevich, “I don’t know if I’ll be able to forgive” him because “if you cooperate, you’re putting dozens or maybe hundreds of people at risk.”
But he warned against judging Protasevich too harshly. “I don’t know how I would behave personally in such a situation,” he said, “we should be very careful when judging the behavior of one or another person.”
Doubts about Mr. Protasevich has been growing for months, especially since news broke last year that he had been released from a grim detention center to house arrest while Sapega, his girlfriend, had been jailed for six years.
In a cold response to Sapega’s imprisonment in May 2022, Protasevich appeared to throw his former partner under the bus, stating in a blog post that she had been “judged for her real activities and not for being in a relationship with me.” Six years in prison, he said, was “far from the most terrible punishment possible.”
Anyway, he added, he had already divorced Ms Sapega and married an unnamed local woman. He posted a color photo of himself with his new bride, who was in a bright yellow dress. Her face had been blurred to hide her identity. She was holding a bouquet of pink roses.
While Sapega has been kept incommunicado since the Ryanair plane landed in Minsk in 2021, Mr. Protasevich has been allowed to speak publicly on a regular basis, usually at heavily scripted events in Minsk under the eyes of security officials and through state news media.
In June last year, shortly after the imprisonment of Sapega, he told Belta, the official news agency, that detention in Belarus was now “the safest place for me” because “many people consider me a traitor”, although he has denied this. let down any of his former colleagues.
Belta said he had “made an informed decision to cooperate with the investigation.”
Family and friends said Mr. Protasevich’s early performances in Minsk suggested he had been beaten. But he later appeared in public looking relaxed and unharmed. He struck an increasingly pro-government tone as he renounced his views and began criticizing Lukashenko’s enemies.
A Belarusian court in May convicted 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 spend no more time behind bars.
Sergei Bespalov, a Belarusian opposition activist and blogger, claimed after Protasevich’s sentencing in May that “dozens of people have been imprisoned because of his actions.” He added a video: “He simply gave them up.”
Sannikov, the head of the European Belarus Civil Campaign, an opposition organization run from Poland, and a former political prisoner in Lukashenko’s prisons, said the relatively mild treatment of Protasevich compared to his former girlfriend had confirmed suspicions. long held by some opposition activists.
“He was a villain from the start,” Sannikov said. “We never trusted him. I told friends not to have any contact with him.”
Nexta, the opposition Telegram channel Mr. Protasevich edited, he said, often “gave mixed directions” to Minsk protesters and “made people run around the city without any purpose.” Nexta also published demonstrably false information that the Belarusian authorities used to try to discredit the opposition.
Exiled political groups often find themselves in conflict and mutual finger-pointing, a phenomenon Lukashenko has encouraged by sending agents to infiltrate and disrupt opponents’ activities outside Belarus. His critics inside the country have almost all been arrested and severely punished.
Maria Kolesnikova, a staunch opponent of Lukashenko who refused to go into exile, was jailed for 11 years in September 2021 after a closed trial. The crackdown on dissent continued this year when Ales Bialiatski, 60, a veteran activist who shared last year’s Nobel Peace Prizereceived 10 years in prison.
Mr. Protasevich’s pardon, Mr. Viacorka, is part of a long and dirty game by the Belarusian authorities to crush the opposition – through brutal violence at home and dirtier 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 all political prisoners to behave like Roman,” Viacorka said, “basically, Roman humiliated himself publicly and this is what Lukashenko wanted” as a lesson for others exiled. opposition figures such as Tikhanovskaya.
For Mr. Sannikov, however, the entire episode has another lesson: “There are plenty of famous people who didn’t live up to expectations. Don’t create heroes. Just be a decent person.”
Tomas Dapkus contributed reporting from Vilnius, Lithuania.