‘I’m proud of my son. He’s a hero’ Meduza speaks to the mother of jailed Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich
Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich (Raman Pratasevich) was arrested in Minsk on May 23. The former editor-in-chief of the prominent Belarusian opposition outlet Nexta was flying from Athens to Vilnius when the Belarusian authorities diverted his Ryanair flight to Minsk due to an alleged bomb scare (Belarus’s transport authority later claimed that it had received a false threat from Hamas). Roman Protasevich’s whereabouts were unknown until late in the day on May 24, when Belarusian police officials confirmed that he was in custody in a pre-trial detention center in Minsk. Not long afterward, a pro-government Telegram channel released the first footage of Protasevich since his arrest — a video in which he asserts that he was “cooperating with the investigation” and had confessed to organizing riots in Minsk (a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison). Earlier in the day, Meduza special correspondent Alexandra Sivtsova interviewed the jailed journalist’s mother, Natalya Protasevich, who spoke about her son’s arrest, his journalistic work, and his dreams for the future of Belarus.
Please note. This is a summary of Alexandra Sivtsova’s interview with Natalya Protasevich. You can read the full Q&A in Russian here.
Asked how she’s feeling, Natalya Protasevich says she’s hardly thinking about herself right now. “[I had] a sleepless night, my heart aches. But now I’ve forgotten about my own well-being. All my thoughts are only about my son.”
The Belarusian authorities removed her 26-year-old son, Roman Protasevich, from a Ryanair flight that was diverted to Minsk on May 23. They arrested him in the Minsk National Airport. At the time of Natalya’s interview with Meduza, Roman’s whereabouts were unknown — “even to the lawyers.”
Update. After Meduza’s interview with Natalya Protasevich was published, a pro-government Telegram channel released the first footage of Roman Protasevich since his arrest. In the video, Protasevich confirms that he’s in pre-trial detention in Minsk and that he isn’t experiencing any health problems.
Roman Protasevich rose to prominence as the editor-in-chief of the Telegram-based news platform Nexta, which operates out of Poland. Under his leadership — and amid the protests against Alexander Lukashenko that followed the 2020 presidential election in Belarus, — Nexta grew to become one of the country’s most prominent opposition news sources. Protasevich left the Nexta team in the fall of 2020 and relocated to Lithuania, where he became the editor of another popular Belarusian opposition Telegram channel, Belamova (Belarus Golovnogo Mozga).
Amid a crackdown on the opposition that has been going on for the better part of a year, the Belarusian authorities designated both Belamova and Nexta as “extremist.” In November 2020, Protasevich was added to the Belarusian security service’s terrorism watchlist, along with Nexta founder Stepan Putilo (Stsiapan Putsila). In Belarus, Protasevich is facing charges of organizing mass riots and “inciting social enmity” against government and police officials — felonies that carry punishments of up to 15 and 12 years in prison, respectively. Moreover, if charged with terrorism, Protasevich could face the death penalty.
“I’m proud of my son. He’s a hero. He’s a man who has always stood for justice only. A man who has always stood for truthful coverage of events in [Belarus],” Natalya tells Meduza. “Roma is a very strong guy. He’s honest. I hope that he will withstand the tests that he has to go through now. Despite the horror that is taking place in the country, we firmly believe that justice will prevail.”
Natalya says that her son has always tried to “protect” her. “For example, I only found out from Telegram channels that he was being followed at the airport [in Athens],” she explained, referring to a suspicious activity her son reported prior to boarding his flight on May 23.
Nevertheless, Roman’s journalistic work has always caused her concern, especially after their family began receiving threats. “As a mother, I was very worried. I always asked [him] to be careful. But he’s such a fighter, such a strong personality, that he said, ‘Mom, who else is there? You can’t sit, you have to do something to change this life, this is lawlessness’,” Natalya recalls. “He knew his path, he knew his goal. He was never a coward. He walked boldly and shed light on the truth. Despite the threats.”
“There were threats, surveillance, wiretapping. They started calling my friends. They asked [them] where my husband is, where I am. Then they called them and said: ‘We know her whereabouts, convince her to influence her son’,” she continues. “A KGB [Belarusian security service] officer met with my husband. They persistently urged him to convince our son and get him out of Poland and to the Czech Republic, and from there to Belarus.”
At that point, Natalya Protasevich and her husband realized it wasn’t safe for them to stay in Belarus anymore — they left for Poland, hoping to return when things had calmed down. They wanted to go back in the fall, but Roman convinced them not to go through with this plan. “He said that a paddy wagon would meet us at customs,” Natalya tells Meduza.
Natalya Protasevich taught advanced mathematics at a Belarusian military academy until 2010–2011, but she was forced to resign due to her son’s “activities.” “Back then a protest movement was born in our country. Roma was 15 years old. At the time, there were these clapping flash mobs [as a show of discontent with Lukashenko],” Natalya explains. “The protests took place in the park. The police started dispersing participants. People fled. The police started grabbing boys who didn’t take part [in the flash mob], they were just sitting on a bench nearby. Roma was there with his friends, he was playing guitar. Thus Roma ended up in a paddy wagon for the first time.”
Roman’s detention cost him his presidential scholarship for “gifted children” and he was asked to leave his school. The Education Ministry told his parents that unless they wanted to homeschool Roman, Natalya would have to go work at a local high school so he could complete the eleventh grade. And so she “quit the military academy and worked at Roman’s school.” After her son graduated, Natalya went back to working at another military academy, but at the height of the crackdown on the opposition in August 2020, she was fired for allegedly missing work.
Natalya’s husband, a lieutenant colonel who served in the Belarusian army for 29 years before retiring in 2019, was demoted as a “traitor” along with 80 other servicemen in accordance with a decree Lukashenko issued on May 4, 2021. “Because he supported his son. Because he dared to leave the country,” Natalya told Meduza, by way of an explanation.
The last time Natalya spoke to Roman was the day before his arrest, May 22. “These conversations were on completely ordinary topics. There were no fears,” she tells Meduza. Indeed, she had no inkling that something like this could happen to her son. “This is the European Union, we felt protected. Roma didn’t think this could happen. After all, it’s madness that this is possible when simply flying over a state — over Belarus. It blows my mind,” Natalya says.
“But I had premonitions. [It’s] a mother’s heart. I was worried about the flight, about the plane,” she continues. “Yesterday morning I tried to get in touch with him: ‘Roma, how are you? Why aren’t you answering?’ Then I found out the news on the Internet. I couldn’t even have thought of such a thing. That a politically-linked hijacking of a plant is possible.”
Natalya says she spent the entire day on the phone on May 23: “[Belarusian] volunteers called. Many publications called. Now we’re trying to get more people to know about what’s going on. Of course, we are very worried. We are worried due to the unknown.”
Asked about claims from pro-government Telegram channels that Roman Protasevich was involved in the war in eastern Ukraine, his mother emphasizes that he covered the conflict as a freelance journalist. “This is some kind of stupidity. We’ve already been asked these questions many times. He went there as a photographer and freelance journalist,” she reiterates.
As for her son’s dreams for the future, Natalya says he shares the aspirations of millions of others in Belarus: “Surely we all have the same dream now — ‘Long live Belarus, live forever.’ To finally see a silver lining. For our country to finally become free. This is Roma’s dream and the dream of millions of Belarusians. The incredible number of people who came to the rallies in August…It’s simply beyond words. It’s an indescribable sense of unity of the Belarusian people. [A free Belarus] is our common dream.”
Summary by Eilish Hart