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Co-worker of detained Belarusian dissident said he and Roman Protasevich spoke about digital security preparations before arrest but ‘neglected’ physical security

Roman Protasevich, former editor of the Nexta Telegram and initiator of the YouTube channel covering the Belarusian protests, speaking at a rally in Gdansk, Poland, August 31, 2020. Photo by Michal Fludra / NurPhoto via Getty Images

  • Roman Protasevich prepared to protect his digital security before being arrested last month.

  • But a friend said the young dissident did not predict that Lukashenko’s regime would take such drastic action.

  • Franak Viačorka, a colleague of Protasevich, told Insider that his friend’s “nightmare” was captured by the KGB.

  • See more stories on the Insider business page.

Weeks before Belarusian authorities hijacked an airliner to Minsk to arrest dissident Roman Protasevich, 26, the young opposition blogger had discussed with a colleague the possibility that authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko , can lead a targeted strike against him.

In the aftermath of Protasevich’s arrest, Franak Viačorka, senior adviser to exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and longtime colleague of Protasevich, told Insider the two discussed potential scenarios and reactions. at various events organized by the autocratic government of their country.

“We have thought a lot about security,” Viačorka said. “Especially digital security.”

As the co-founder and editor-in-chief of NEXTA, a popular Poland-based opposition Telegram channel, Protasevich focused much of his work on leaking Lukashenko regime videos and documents. The NEXTA team played a vital news role in last year’s hotly contested presidential election as the Lukashenko regime shut down independent media inside the country.

When Belarusian security forces arrested Protasevich on May 23 after the Ryanair flight on which he was traveling between Greece and Lithuania was forced to land in Minsk, Viačorka said all Protasevich pages and accounts had been removed, thanks to digital security advance planning.

“But we neglected physical security,” he said. “This flight was something we hadn’t planned on.

Protasevich had flown to Vilnius from Athens where he was covering an economic forum before enjoying a brief vacation with his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, 23, who was also arrested last month.

Viačorka was in Greece with Protasevich a few days earlier, where he and his boss, Tikhanovskaya, who was forced into exile after running against Lukashenko in the contested August elections, attended the same conference, at the invitation from the Greek government, he said.

In fact, a week before Protasevich and Sapega’s fateful flight with Ryanair, Viačorka told Insider that he and Tikhanovskaya took the same flight from Athens to Vilnius.

“So maybe that was a message to us too,” he said.

When Viačorka learned that a plane had been forced to stop in Minsk this Sunday in May, he said he was shocked. He believes he was one of the first people to know that Protasevich was on the flight and the intended target for the aircraft to roll back.

“I waited until the very last moment not to publish this information, hoping that something will change, hoping that they will let him go or that they do not land in Minsk,” he said.

In the hours and days following the brutal hijacking, passengers on the flight told reporters that Protasevich looked “shocked” and “scared” after the pilot’s announcement, even as the young activist instinctively began to collect his electronic devices and hand them over to Sapega.

Ryanair’s CEO later said KGB agents had been on board the flight from the start.

“I know Roman was afraid. He was always afraid of being captured by the KGB,” Viačorka said. “It was his nightmare.”

In their conversations in the weeks leading up to Protasevich’s capture, the two discussed methods of the KGB and spy rings, Viačorka said.

“Sometimes jokingly, sometimes seriously, we discussed these different situations,” he said. “This may be the only situation we didn’t foresee.”

Protasevich now faces a death sentence for terrorism and inciting anti-government riots in Belarus – the last European country to have used this method.

On Thursday, he appeared on Belarusian state television, confessing to crimes against the country and praising his former nemesis, Lukashenko. Protasaevich’s family, Belarusian opposition leaders and members of the international community decried the video, which raised new concerns about torture and coercion.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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