oDR: Analysis

The Pratasevich case is an urgent reminder that Europe fails to protect exiles

The operation to detain Raman Pratasevich is a call to action to protect journalists, dissidents and people seeking protection in Europe – at all costs

Thomas Rowley
24 May 2021, 11.17am
Raman Pratasevich
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Image: NEXTA

It was just a few minutes before the Ryanair jet was set to cross into Lithuanian airspace when it diverted suddenly towards Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

A sliver of time and space, of international and national jurisdictions, that decided the fate of one of the passengers: Raman Pratasevich, 26, journalist and co-founder of NEXTA, a popular and influential Belarusian opposition Telegram channel which rose to prominence in the wake of last year’s tumultuous presidential elections.

“The death penalty awaits me here,” Pratasevich reportedly said as he was taken off the plane in Minsk, back into the clutches of a system that put him on a terrorism watchlist for his journalism. Pratasevich’s girlfriend, Russian student Sofia Sapega, was also detained.

Details are still emerging about how the Belarusian authorities managed to get the plane to land in Minsk, though Ryanair has now called it a case of “state-sponsored hijacking”. Pratasevich is now in custody, and faces up to 15 years in prison over charges of “organising mass riots”, “disorder” and “raising social hostility to law enforcement”.

Since election fraud and police violence brought people out on Belarusian city streets last year, NEXTA, now with some 1.2 million subscribers, has documented the country’s post-election mobilisation in detail, rising to become one of its foremost information sources – and political factors. The authorities have since declared the channel “extremist”. In March this year, the outlet released a film exposing the luxurious and wealthy lifestyle of president Alyaksandr Lukashenka, which, three days later, had already garnered three million views online.

NEXTA was founded by Pratasevich, who now runs a different Telegram channel, and fellow Belarusian journalist, Stsiapan Putsila, and is run from neighbouring Poland, alluding to the extreme difficulty of conducting journalism, or political activity, in Belarus. At least three demonstrators were killed in the aftermath of Belarus’ August 2020 election, with 6,700 people detained, and hundreds, if not thousands, of people deliberately tortured or injured by the police. Ensuing criminal investigations have followed many participants of the protest wave, forcing them to leave their country and seek new lives outside Belarus. Pratasevich had, for example, applied for asylum in Poland, and held a visa for Lithuania.

“The Pratasevich case is part of Lukashenka’s general policy of restricting the media landscape,” said Vadim Mojeiko, from the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies, who highlights recent changes to the country’s law on mass media and last week’s police raid on TUT.by, a major independent news outlet, over alleged ‘tax evasion’. “Many journalists and bloggers are already behind bars, and now the danger is felt by those who are abroad or even flying over Belarus or Russia,” he said.

“Protecting those who have already received asylum in Europe, as well as EU citizens, is a minimum task for European countries”

Indeed, European states are supposed to be ‘safe havens’ for journalists, exiles and dissidents from authoritarian regimes. Values of political pluralism and freedom of speech, rights-based protection for persons fleeing dangerous situations, together with supposedly neutral law enforcement and migration services are meant, in principle, to protect persons at risk from the long arm of their home country’s security services.

But a steady stream of harassment and attacks, extraditions, deportations and kidnappings against those fleeing authoritarian states has put that idea under serious strain in recent years – as well as raising questions about how European states are reacting to transnational repression. The European Union may now have its own version of the Magnitsky Act, which imposes asset freezes and travel bans on individuals and entities suspected of human rights violations, but it is yet to stop repression in EU states. And while the Pratasevich case is clearly unprecedented – grounding an EU plane with EU citizens with a fighter jet is new territory – it points to the huge challenge of how states can respond to these acts.

Earlier this year, for example, an Azerbaijani blogger, Mahammad Mirzali, was beaten and stabbed in broad daylight in Nantes, France – in an attack he connected directly to his criticism of the Azerbaijani authorities. Meanwhile, since March, five Chechen exiles seeking asylum in France and Germany have been deported to Russia, where they face likely torture and fabricated criminal investigations.

“What would the EU be doing if Pratasevich were a prominent French journalist?” asked John Heathershaw, professor of politics at the University of Exeter, who researches how authoritarian states target dissidents abroad.

He pointed to the situation of Sharofiddin Gadoev, a Tajik political refugee and Dutch resident. In February 2019, Gadoev, a businessman and exile, was arrested by Russian officials in Moscow and forced onto a plane to Tajikistan, where he faced politically motivated prosecution.

Several weeks after Gadoev was “rendered” to Tajikistan, Heathershaw noted, the Netherlands “successfully demanded his return” – an example, he says, of “what the European Union should do” in the Pratasevich case.

“More broadly, we need to see recognition that anti-immigrant policies within the EU, encourage countries like Tajikistan and Belarus that they can get away with this without a vehement response,” said Heathershaw. “They do it because they see Western countries as weak.”

“Protecting those who have already received asylum in Europe, as well as EU citizens, is a minimum task for European countries,” said Mojeiko. “If regimes like Lukashenka are able to hijack the planes of European airlines with impunity, then this will also be a signal to Putin and other authoritarian leaders that they can do more in relation to European countries they dislike.”

“The EU needs to stop treating Belarus like a state with due process and recognise it as a kleptocracy where a cabal of Lukashenka’s people keep control of wealth production, both legal and illegal, through vicious means,” said Heathershaw. “If they do not step up with a flight ban to and from Belarus, and for the country’s airline, then they will have failed.”

More practically, it appears that this dramatic case has not only put Belarus back on the political agenda – it’s also become a tragic reminder of the potentially extreme risks that journalists and exiles face even after they leave their homes.

“Expressions of ‘deep concern’ will not be enough,” said Mojeiko. “Real action is necessary.”

Update 27 May: This article was corrected to reflect that Raman Pratasevich did not have asylum status in Lithuania, but a visa issued by that country, and had applied for asylum in Poland, after openDemocracy contacted the relevant authorities in those countries.

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