WARSAW — Since his teenage years as a rebellious high school student in Belarus and continuing into his 20s while in exile abroad, Roman Protasevich faced so many threats from the country’s security apparatus — of violent beatings, jail, punishment against family members — that “we all sort of got used to them,” a fellow exiled dissident recalled.
So, despite his being branded a terrorist by Belarus late last year — a capital offense — Mr. Protasevich was not particularly worried when he set off for Greece from Lithuania, where he had been living, earlier this month to attend a conference and take a short vacation with his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.
But that sense of security was shattered on Sunday when they were snatched by Belarus security officials on the tarmac at Minsk National Airport after a MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to intercept his commercial flight home to Lithuania from Greece. Mr. Protasevich, 26, now faces the vengeance of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the 66-year-old Belarusian leader from whom he once received a scholarship for gifted students but has since defied with unflinching zeal.
In a short video released on Monday by the authorities in Belarus, Mr. Protasevich confessed — under duress, his friends say — to taking part in the organization of “mass unrest” last year in Minsk, the Belarus capital. That is the government’s term for weeks of huge street protests after Mr. Lukashenko, in power since 1994, declared a landslide re-election victory in an August election widely dismissed as brazenly rigged.
Nexta, the opposition news organization where Mr. Protasevich established himself as one of Mr. Lukashenko’s most effective and unbending critics.
“By his character Roman has always been very resolute,” Mr. Putsila said. “He refused to live in fear.”
Since Mr. Lukashenko took power in Belarus in 1994, however, that has been a very perilous proposition.
Mr. Protasevich has been resisting his country’s tyranny since he was 16, when he first witnessed what he described as the “disgusting” brutality of Mr. Lukashenko’s rule. That began a personal journey that would turn a gifted student at a science high school in Minsk into an avowed enemy of a government that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2005 called “the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe.”
video posted on YouTube . “Just as an example: Five huge OMON riot police officers beat women. A mother with her child was thrown into a police van. It was disgusting. After that everything changed fundamentally.”
A letter from the security services to his high school followed. He was expelled and home educated for six months, as no other school would take him, his mother said.
The family eventually negotiated a deal with the Ministry of Education. Mr. Protasevich could attend school, though only an ordinary one, not the elite lyceum he had been enrolled in before, but only if his mother resigned from her teaching job at the army academy.
“Imagine being a 16-year-old and being expelled from school,” Ms. Protasevich said. “It was this incident, this injustice, this insult,” that drove him into the political opposition, she said. “That is how he began his activism as a 16-year-old.”
Mr. Protasevich studied journalism at Belarusian State University but again ran into trouble with the authorities. Unable to finish his degree, he worked as a freelance reporter for a variety of opposition-leaning publications. Frequently detained and jailed for short periods, he decided to move to Poland, working for 10 months in Warsaw with Mr. Putsila and others on the Nexta team disseminating videos, leaked documents and news reports critical of Mr. Lukashenko.
Convinced that his work would have more impact if he were inside Belarus, Mr. Protasevich returned in 2019 to Minsk. But the political climate had only darkened there as Mr. Lukashenko geared up for a presidential election in 2020.
denounced as trumped up drug charges as he was trying to cross the border into Poland.
interview last year. “No one else is left. The opposition leaders are in prison.” Mr. Putsila said that Mr. Protasevich never advocated violence, only peaceful protests.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the principal opposition candidate in the August election who had been forced to flee. With Mr. Lukashenko’s other main rivals in detention, Ms. Tikhanovskaya had become the main voice of the Belarus opposition.
In November, prosecutors in Belarus formally charged Mr. Protasevich under a law that bans the organization of protests that violate “social order.” The security services also put him on a list of accused terrorists.
Nashe Nive, a Belarusian news site.
Mr. Putsila said he was stunned that Mr. Lukashenko would force a commercial airliner to land just to arrest a youthful critic but, with the benefit of hindsight, thinks the operation should not have come as a big surprise. The autocrat, he said, wanted to show that “we will reach you not only in Belarus but wherever you are. He has always tried to terrify.”
A measure of that was that when the plane was forced to land in Minsk on Sunday, Belarus security agents arrested not only Mr. Protasevich but Ms. Sapega, 23. Ms. Sapega, a law student at the European Humanities University in Vilnius, in Lithuania’s capital, appeared to have been arrested over her association. She was not known to be a target in her own right. Her lawyer said Wednesday she would be jailed for at least two months and face a criminal trial.
Mr. Putsila noted that Nexta had received so many threatening letters and abusive phone calls that Polish police officers stand permanent guard on the stairwell leading to the office.
“The Lukashenko regime considers Roman one of its main enemies,” he said. “Maybe it is right.”
Another colleague, Ekaterina Yerusalimskaya, told the Tut.by news service that she and Mr. Protasevich once noticed a mysterious man tailing them in Poland, and reported it to the police. Still, Mr. Protasevich remained nonchalant. “He calmed himself by saying nobody would touch us, otherwise it would be an international scandal,” Ms. Yerusalimskaya said.
Mr. Protasevich’s mother said she worried about his safety but, breaking down in tears as she contemplated her son’s fate after his arrest in Minsk, added: “We believe justice will prevail. We believe all this terror will pass. We believe political prisoners will be freed. And we are very proud of our son.”
Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting from Moscow.