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The arrest of of Belarussian blogger Raman Pratasevich sparked a global outcry. How did a rebellious student turn into a public enemy that Belarus was so keen to get their hands on, they sent a fighter jet after him?
In his Twitter profile, Raman Pratasevich describes himself as the "first journalist-terrorist in history." The Belarusian secret service KGB added the 26-year-old opposition blogger to its terror list in November 2020.
The irony in Pratasevich's reaction was replaced by harsh reality on Sunday. Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko ordered a passenger plane to land in Minsk, grounding the Ryanair flight with the blogger on board under the pretext of a bomb threat. Upon landing, the blogger was arrested.
Since then, the whole world has learned his name, and the European Union cut flight connections to and from Belarus in response to the arrest.
In his first video from pre-trial detention, circulated Tuesday evening by media outlets close to the state, Pratasevich is visibly wearing make-up, with dark spots on his forehead. The blogger assures the camera that he is being treated well and will testify in the criminal proceedings for mass unrest. Pratasevich's parents tried to read how he was really doing from his face, instead of his words.
His father Dmitry Pratasevich told the web portal "The Insider" that his son may have been beaten and that his nose may have been broken.
For Pratasevich, the recent events are the culmination of his now ten years as an opposition activist. His name appeared in news coverage across the country for the first time when he was taken away as a 16-year-old student in Minsk in 2011 ― with shoulder-length hair and head proudly raised.
The arrest occurred during protests against Lukashenko which were much smaller at the time than they are today. Pratasevich was additionally expelled from school despite earning good grades. Also in 2011, he was arrested as the suspected operator of an opposition social network.
There were reports that he had left his parents' home over disagreements. His father was an officer and taught at the military academy, but later denied that there had been a dispute with his son.
Pratasevich was involved in the opposition youth organization "Young Front" and studied journalism at the university in Minsk. He was expelled from university, allegedly for formal reasons, but he believes that the move was politically motivated.
In 2017, he received a Havel scholarship at the Belarusian service of the US foreign broadcaster "Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty" (RFE/RL), based in Prague. He worked as a freelance journalist for various media, including leading Belarusian web portal Tut.by, which was recently blocked by the government. He also covered the war in eastern Ukraine as a photojournalist.
Pratasevich worked as a reporter and photographer at the Polish-Belarusian broadcaster "Euroradio".
"Raman was a man of the moment," recalls current editor-in-chief Pavel Sverdlov in an interview with DW. "He could quickly pack up his equipment bag and immediately set out to investigate."
Pratasevich was a good journalist, the editor-in-chief said, but he could not organize or coordinate protests. "He never had the goal of directing people or organizing anything."
According to Sverdlov, Pratasevich is a caring person: "We once sent him out into the country to photograph local activists. He came back with a stray cat that he had met on the street and couldn't leave behind."
Worried for his life, Pratasevich moved to Poland in late 2019 and became editor-in-chief of the opposition Telegram channels "Nexta" and "Nexta Live" (Belarusian for "someone"). That's what eventually led to his undoing.
Belarus saw nationwide protests in August 2020 after Lukashenko declared himself the winner of the presidential elections, which the opposition said was a sham.
There are several cases pending against Pratasevich in Belarus, and he faces a prison sentence of up to 15 years. The central reason is likely his activity on the Telegram channel "Nexta" after the presidential election in August 2020, when President Lukashenko again declared himself the winner.
The two channels "Nexta" and "Nexta Live" became a leading source of information about the protests, spreading amateur photos and videos at lightning speed.
"People understood that information could be sent to us safely," Pratasevich said in a DW interview before the presidential election.
"Nexta" was founded by blogger and YouTuber Stepan Putilo (who has also been known by his pseudonym Stepan Svetlov) along with other opposition figures. He runs the channels from Poland and was awarded the EU Parliament's Sakharov Prize in December 2020. In some cases, however, false information is said to have been spread via the channel, for example about the alleged use of Russian special forces against demonstrators in Minsk.
Putilo is also on the KGB's terror list. "Nexta" is not a purely journalistic product. It looks more like a digital mouthpiece for demonstrators. Youtuber Putilo doesn't see problem with that. In a DW interview, he spoke of a "hybrid format" in which the boundaries between journalism and activism have blurred. At the height of the protests, the number of "Nexta" subscribers rose from about 300,000 to 1.8 million users within a few days. Currently, it stands at around 1.2 million.
Pratasevich and Putilo parted ways at the end of September 2020, when the blogger moved from Warsaw to Vilnius, where former presidential candidate and opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya also lives in exile. According to media reports, he became involved in her team and was also editor-in-chief of another opposition Telegram channel.
In interviews, Pratasevich's mother Natalia describes her son as a "fighter" and a "strong personality." She says her son's involvement in the opposition forced the family to move to Poland in August 2020.
They had been threatened and tailed, Pratasevich's mother said. In early May 2021, two weeks before his arrest, Pratasevich reported on Twitter that President Lukashenko had stripped his now-retired father of his military rank. In retrospect, this appears to have been a final warning.
This article was adapted from German.