Belarus journalist Roman Protasevich’s colleagues fear for their lives

Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega

Reuters

Former colleagues of the dissident journalist arrested in Belarus after a Ryanair flight was diverted on Sunday say they now fear for their lives.

Roman Protasevich, 26, and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, are both being held in detention.

“Roman is more in danger than other political prisoners in Belarus,” Stepan Putilo told the BBC.

Mr Protasevich has said he fears the death penalty after being placed on a terrorism list.

He faces charges related to his reporting of last August’s disputed Belarusian presidential election and the subsequent crackdown on mass opposition protests.

Belarus is the only European country that still executes prisoners.

Mr Protasevich and Ms Sapega were detained on Sunday, after Belarus scrambled a military jet to force their plane – flying from Athens to Vilnius, in neighbouring Lithuania – to land in Minsk, the Belarusian capital.

Western countries accuse Belarus of hijacking the Ryanair plane that was rerouted over a supposed bomb threat.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is due to address the country’s parliament on Wednesday.

‘We show what they want to conceal’

Mr Putilo, who along with Mr Protasevich co-founded the opposition social media channel Nexta on messaging app Telegram, said the Belarus government under Mr Lukashenko “fears us because we show the truth”.

Nexta has more than a million subscribers and was used for mobilising street protests last year.

Stepan Putilo told the BBC that he had received death threats and was "taking them seriously"

EPA

“We show what they want to conceal,” he said. “If the regime cares enough to bring down Roman’s plane, then we are doing something right, and we will carry on fighting.”

Mr Putilo added that while he had received death threats in the past, he was now “taking them seriously”.

His comments come after the families of Mr Protasevich and Ms Sapega, who have both given video statements since their detention, spoke of their concern for the pair’s safety.

“I’m calling on the whole international community to save him,” Mr Protasevich’s mother, Natalia, said.

In Ms Sapega’s video statement, she says she edits a Telegram channel that publishes personal information of Belarusian policemen. However, it is likely she is speaking under duress.

“Today Sofia was interrogated. She was accused of committing a criminal offence. A preventive measure was chosen – detention for a period of two months,” her lawyer, Alexander Filanovich, told the BBC’s Russian service on Tuesday.

Ms Sapega is now in a pre-trial detention centre in the Belarusian capital, he said.

Sofia Sapega

Reuters

Ms Sapega’s mother cast doubt on how freely her daughter was speaking in the video, released by a pro-government Telegram channel.

“She sways, eyes in the sky – as if afraid of forgetting something,” she told the BBC.

“I enlarged [the video] as much as possible – it seems that [she looks] okay. We are now packing warm clothes, we will go to Minsk. I want to try to give her a parcel – I saw she only had a thin jacket.”

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‘Lie low and keep quiet’

The BBC’s Sarah Rainsford reports from Minsk

To a casual observer, Minsk seems relaxed. On Tuesday evening, there were teenagers with guitars on the embankment, young rappers practising on a city square and no hint of the political turmoil that swept this country after last summer’s disputed presidential election.

But behind closed doors, people say the audacious arrest of Roman Protasevich has only shown the outside world the reality and the risk that opposition activists inside Belarus have been living with.

Just on Tuesday, another seven activists were handed long prison sentences. Last week, the country’s best-known independent news website was taken offline, with multiple arrests for supposed financial irregularities. Since the protests were crushed, bloggers and businesspeople, politicians and protesters have all ended up behind bars and no-one knows who might be next. That’s why many who would once have spoken freely here are now nervous. They prefer to lie low and keep quiet, just in case.

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On Monday, Belarus authorities released video of Mr Protasevich that appears to have been recorded under duress.

Mr Protasevich’s mother Natalia told AFP news agency that she had not slept since her son’s arrest.

“I’m asking, I’m begging, I’m calling on the whole international community to save him,” she said, breaking down in tears during an interview in Wroclaw, southern Poland.

“He’s only one journalist, he’s only one child but please, please… I am begging for help. Please save him! They’re going to kill him in there!”

She added that her son is a “fighter for justice”.

“They sent a fighter jet to get this young man! It’s an act of terrorism, I don’t think you can call it anything else. He’s been taken hostage. This is an act of pure revenge!” she said.

Her voice breaking, she added: “My son, this young man just wanted to tell the truth about the situation. He didn’t do anything wrong.”

How were the couple arrested?

Belarus sent a fighter jet to force Ryanair flight FR4978 to land, claiming there was a bomb threat. It touched down in the capital Minsk at 13:16 local time (10:16 GMT) on Sunday.

Police then took Mr Protasevich away when the plane’s 126 passengers disembarked. The activist, who witnesses said was “super scared”, was arrested along with Sofia Sapega.

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On Tuesday, the Belarusian transport ministry released a transcript of a conversation said to be between an air traffic controller in Minsk and a pilot on Sunday’s Ryanair flight.

According to the transcript, which has not been independently verified, Belarus suggested several times that the plane should land in Minsk on “our recommendation”.

This appeared to contradict earlier statements from the Belarusian authorities that said the decision to land was made independently by the pilot.

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Belarus: The basics

Where is Belarus? It has its ally Russia to the east and Ukraine to the south. To the north and west lie EU and Nato members Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Why does it matter? Like Ukraine, this nation of 9.5 million is caught in rivalry between the West and Russia. President Lukashenko has been nicknamed “Europe’s last dictator” – he has been in power for 27 years.

What’s going on there? There is a huge opposition movement demanding new, democratic leadership and economic reform. The opposition movement and Western governments say Mr Lukashenko rigged the 9 August election. Officially he won by a landslide. A huge police crackdown has curbed street protests and sent opposition leaders to prison or into exile.

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