Roman Protasevich: who is the Nexta co-founder, why was he arrested in Belarus - and who is his girlfriend?

The journalist, who opposes president Alexander Lukashenko’s government, was detained in Minsk after a Ryanair flight was diverted

Several airlines have said they won’t fly over Belarus after dissident journalist Roman Protasevich was arrested on a flight diverted to Minsk.

Protasevich was detained along with his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega on May 23.

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Belarus authorities have released a video of Mr Protasevich that appears to have been recorded under duress since his arrest.

But who is the journalist, why was he arrested - and what will happen to him now?

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What happened in Belarus?

A Ryanair plane travelling from Greece to Lithuania was diverted to Minsk, Belarus on Sunday 23 May over a reported bomb threat.

The Belarus government has released a video of journalist Roman Protasevich stating that he is in good health and co-operating after being arrested on a Ryanair flight in Minsk (PA).

However, Western countries accuse Belarus of hijacking the plane, which was carrying journalist Roman Protasevich. He was arrested in Minsk when the plane landed, along with his girlfriend.

Officials later said no explosives had been found on board while the deputy air force commander said the plane’s crew made the decision to land in the Belarus capital.

Belarus state media said the country’s president Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the flight Protasevich was on.

The European Union and the UK have issued new sanctions against Belarus in light of the incident.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps instructed the Civil Aviation Authority to request airlines avoid Belarusian air space “to keep passengers safe”.

Shapps also suspended the operating permit for Belavia, the country’s state-owned airline, while EU leaders have called on member states to do the same.

Who is Roman Protasevich?

Protasevich is a former editor of media channel Nextra, which also has a telegram app. It currently has around 1.5 million subscribers.

It was declared extremist by the authorities last year after it helped organise mass demonstrations against President Lukashenko’s election victory.

The president has been in power for 27 years, and has been referred to by media outlets as ‘Europe’s last dictator’.

After leaving Belarus in 2019, Protasevich fled to Lithuania over fears he would be arrested.

Why was Roman Protasevich arrested?

Roman Protasevich, 26, was on board the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius on May 23 when it was forced to change course.

He was arrested alongside his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, and faces charges of terrorism and inciting riots after his reporting of the 2020 Belarusian presidential election, which he did from Lithuania.

Protests took place in Belaruslast year for several months as hundreds of thousands took to the streets to demonstrate against the election results, which saw Lukashenko win a sixth term in office amid widespread allegations the result was rigged.

Protasevich’s media channel Nexta played a key role in opposing the vote as it operated a telegram messaging app, which allowed people to communicate amid news blackouts imposed by the government.

How have other countries responded?

European Council president Charles Michel said Minsk was playing “Russian roulette” after the plane was diverted and the prominent critic was arrested in Belarus.

Speaking in the early hours of May 25 in Brussels, Michel said the events were “unacceptable, shocking and scandalous”.

“We will not tolerate that they play Russian roulette with the lives of innocent civilians,” he added.

Michel called for the release of Protasevich and his girlfriend Sapega.

Lukashenko has been president of Belarus since the post was established in 1994. He was re-elected for a sixth time in 2020, winning 80% of the vote in a ballot deemed “neither free nor fair” by the EU.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the plane incident was a “hijacking”.

She said: “This is an attack on democracy. This is an attack on freedom of expression.

“And this is an attack on European sovereignty. And this outrageous behaviour needs a strong answer.”

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in the Commons on 24 May that it was “very difficult to believe” the seizure of Protasevich from the flight could have taken place “without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow”.

He said that although the situation was not yet clear, the relationship between Minsk and Moscow suggested Russian leaders may have been aware of the plans in advance.

What’s happening to Roman Protasevich now?

In a video released by Belarusian authorities on 24 May, Protasevich appeared to admit he was involved in organising mass protests in Minsk last year.

He said: “Yesterday I was detained by law enforcement officials at Minsk airport.

“Currently I am at detention centre 1 in Minsk.

“I can state that I am not experiencing any health problems, nor with my heart or other organs.

“The treatment from the officials here has been maximally correct and according to law.

“Now I am continuing to cooperate with the investigation and am confessing to organising mass disturbances in Minsk.”

His father Dzmitry Protasevich told BBC News that he believes the interview was filmed under duress.

He said: ''I think he was forced. It's not his words, it's not his intonation of speech, he is acting very reserved and you can see he is nervous."

The UK Prime Minister said the video was “deeply distressing” and called for Mr Protasevich’s release.

He tweeted: “The video of Roman Protasevich makes for deeply distressing viewing.

“As a journalist and a passionate believer in freedom of speech I call for his immediate release.

“Belarus’ actions will have consequences.”

Additional reporting by PA.