Citizens of Belarus have endured oppressive rule for more than a quarter-century. But the public is beginning to challenge widespread government corruption—thanks to a daring, and young, journalist. Raman Pratasevich is being held hostage for disagreeing with a dictator.
Born in Belarus in 1995, Pratasevich has been a rebel for over a decade. At 16, he protested President Alexander Lukashenko’s disputed 2010 election. Police detained him several times and eventually expelled him from high school in Minsk, the Belarus capital.
As a college journalism student, Pratasevich worked for the Belarusian service of the U.S.-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other outlets. In 2018, Belarusian State University expelled Pratasevich for cooperating with independent media.
Pratasevich left his homeland the next year. He hoped to escape the reach of the Belarusian KGB (secret police). Even though he was out of the country, Belarus officials charged him with inflaming riots—and issued a sentence of 15 years in prison.
Last year, Pratasevich and another young journalist, Stsiapan Putsila, set up the Nexta channel on the Telegram messaging app. Nexta aided demonstrations against the iron-fisted rule of Lukashenko. “We have become a voice for every Belarusian,” Pratasevich said at the time.
Most experts believe Lukashenko’s 2020 re-election was rigged. Over 34,000 people have been arrested in Belarus since, and thousands beaten.
Infuriated Belarusian authorities labeled Nexta “extremist,” a further charge on Pratasevich’s growing rap sheet. Authorities charged Pratasevich and Putsila with inciting mass disturbances and fanning social hatred. Pratasevich was also put on a terrorist watchlist. That charge could bring the death penalty.
But Pratasevich didn’t stop. “He has succeeded in waking up Belarusians,” says Franak Viachorka, a longtime friend, “connecting the discontent that was smoldering . . . and provoked the dictator’s anger.”
Pratasevich had long feared abduction by Belarus authorities, even from Poland. He frequently changed residences. He tried to avoid walking alone late at night. What the 26-year-old dissident journalist couldn’t imagine, however, is how far his pursuers would go.
Lukashenko’s anger would boil over on May 23, 2021. That day, Pratasevich was flying to Lithuania from Greece with his girlfriend. Suddenly, Belarusian flight controllers told the jet’s crew to divert to Minsk, Belarus. They cited a bomb threat—though no bomb was ever found. A nervous Pratasevich told fellow passengers he feared execution in Belarus. When the plane landed, officials arrested him. (Read “Belarusian Hijacking.”)
Global outrage followed. The European Union barred Belarusian airlines from its airspace and airports. Russia responded too—by quickly offering a helping hand.
Pratasevich appeared in multiple videos on Belarusian state TV several days after the plane hijacking. Many political analysts believe he endured torture after his arrest. The jailed journalist spoke rapidly and in a monotone. He confessed to staging mass disturbances. He declared his treatment was “maximally correct and according to law”—even though he looked disheveled and distressed.
Pratasevich’s parents watched the interviews. Their son’s statements seemed forced. His mother says his nose looked broken, and it appeared makeup covered facial bruises.
On camera, Pratasevich declared he respects Lukashenko, the dictator-president he opposed for years. At the end of one interview, he said he wanted only to “live an ordinary, calm life, have a family, children, stop running away from something.”
Then he covered his face with his hands and wept.