Nataliya and Dmitry Pratasevich, the parents of Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich, attend a news conference in Warsaw, Poland on May 27, 2021. (Reuters/Agencja Gazeta/Jacek Marczewski)

Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich’s parents on their efforts to find and free their son

“It felt like a horror movie.” That is how Dmitry Pratasevich describes learning that his son, Raman Pratasevich, was arrested after Belarusian authorities diverted Raman’s commercial flight from Greece to Lithuania to land in Minsk on May 23. Raman was the co-founder of NEXTA and the chief editor of Belarus of the Brain, two Telegram channels that rankled authorities with their coverage of anti-government street protests. 

In the month since Raman’s arrest, Dmitry and his wife Nataliya have watched their 26-year-old son’s case unfold with dread, catching glimpses of him in three televised forced confessions. On May 24, Belarusian state television broadcasted a video in which Raman appeared to admit to organizing protests and praised Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko. On June 3, state TV aired an “interview” with Raman which was followed by a June 14 press conference on the divergence of the plane at which Raman appeared.

Speaking to CPJ via phone from Warsaw where they relocated for fear of their safety even before Raman’s arrest, Dmitry and Nataliya recounted their recent experience and their son’s – they sometimes called him “Roma” as a nickname — journalistic bravery. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.  

CPJ emailed requests for comment to the Investigative Committee of Belarus and its spokesperson’s office, the Belarus’s Ministry of Interior, the State Security Committee’s press office and the presidential press office, but did not receive any replies.  

Where were you when Raman was arrested? 

Dmitry: It was a Sunday, we were out walking in a park in Wrocław, when we read that a plane was forced to land [in Minsk]. We didn’t know Raman’s schedule [for that day] but we felt something might be wrong with him. Both Nataliya and I got very worried. And when we learned that Raman was on that plane … It was awful. We got scared, very scared. At first, we couldn’t believe it was actually happening. 

How would you describe everything that happened since Raman’s arrest? 

Dmitry: Like a rollercoaster in a horror movie. Horror is the main feeling we have these days. As soon as we learned [about Raman’s arrest], we started trying to find out where he was and how he was. We knew the nature of the regime in Belarus, we knew what can happen to someone they catch, we knew what torture and abuse our son could be subjected to. And we started looking for a lawyer. But unfortunately, because of the legal situation in Belarus [in which laws are arbitrarily enforced], the lawyer was able to get access to Raman only on the fourth day. For the first few hours, we didn’t know where Raman was. Then we received the information from someone we knew via Telegram that said “your son is in grave condition in one of the Minsk hospitals.” It was awful. We started trying to find out more. 

Thank god, the information was not confirmed, although it was not denied either. But [the incident] drew the attention of the whole international community, of all reasonable people, and the [Belarus] authorities showed us our son although they did so by violating his rights in every way possible. They showed his so-called confession [on May 24] in which he said he was collaborating with the investigation, but you could clearly see the marks of beating and abuse on his face and his body. It’s very possible that his nose was broken because his face is covered with a lot of make up on the first video. He had marks of a large wound on his forehead. He later told his lawyer that he “rubbed” his face on the wall. It sounded like [nonsense]. The left side of his face was swollen and was also covered in makeup. I think his teeth were missing too. On his neck, you could see marks of strangling, either with a rope or a cable.

Why do you think the authorities broadcast the confession?

Dmitry: I think the authorities saw the reaction of [the world community] and realized that the act of state terrorism they committed will not go unnoticed, and backtracked. The state institutions announced that Raman was cooperating with the investigation. The broadcasted confession violated all of Raman’s rights, violated the secrecy of the investigation and [the presumption of innocence]. But it was the authorities’ pathetic attempts to justify the plane hijacking. 

What did the lawyer see when she finally met with Raman on the fourth day of his detention? 

Dmitry: According to Belarusian law, the lawyer cannot tell anybody where her client is being held, what charges he is facing, and she wasn’t telling us anything about Raman’s state. But even knowing that Raman was alive — at least, his lawyer saw him alive — was a relief.  

On the following day [after the lawyer’s visit to Raman], our daughter went to the KGB [Belarusian state security committee] pretrial detention center in Minsk with the parcel for Raman with food and some necessary items. Only when they accepted the parcel did we know with 100% confidence that Raman was being held there. Until that day, we were just guessing.

Then they broadcast the second video – I don’t want to call it an interview because neither from a professional nor from an ethical point of view was it an interview. You could see that Raman was under a lot of stress, and his torture was being continued. It could be psychological or physical torture, or both. We are worried and concerned about his state because we don’t know anything about his health. We filed a complaint asking to do a medical checkup of Raman; the authorities were supposed to respond to the complaint within 10 days, but it went [unanswered], probably nobody even read it.

The authorities are doing everything to prevent us from learning about Raman, so we watched the videos very carefully — we weren’t listening to his words, we were examining his face and body. The lawyer was again able to see him on the 11th day. 

Did Raman expect this kind of treatment from the authorities after NEXTA was branded as “extremist” and he was placed on the Belarusian government’s international “wanted list” in November? 

Dmitry: I don’t think so. When the KGB included him in the list of “people inclined to [commit] terrorist acts,” Raman joked by saying “Oh, I became a terrorist.” How could it be taken seriously – to brand someone a terrorist just for journalism? State TV channels started a campaign, they called him a terrorist, an extremist and even a neo-Nazi and a degenerate. Raman didn’t take it very seriously, partly because he felt safe in a European country.

Did he ever receive threats when he worked at NEXTA or Belarus of the Brain Telegram channels? 

Dmitry: Yes, the threats were aimed at forcing him to stop his work, we even suspected physical surveillance [in Poland], but I think the Belarusian authorities were afraid of doing anything illegal on a foreign soil. I don’t think he ever thought that the work of a 25-year old boy — he is practically a boy — could shake the whole state system in Belarus. He only reported the events, he shared the information that people sent to him. 

[Editor’s note: Raman is now 26.]

Can you tell us little more about Raman’s work with the Telegram channels? 

Dmitry: He worked a lot. He started with a handful of subscribers. When he left NEXTA, there were over two million subscribers. This was the result of his work. Since October 2020, he worked with Belarus of the Brain from Vilnius [in Lithuania]. He worked so much, he was exhausted, but he continued working because he used to say, “If not me, who else is going to do this?” His team then practically forced him to take vacation and go to Greece. 

Raman Pratasevich and his mother Nataliya Pratasevich take a selfie. (Photo by Raman Pratasevich)

How did Raman decide to become a journalist?

Nataliya: In the summer of 2011, Raman was detained for the first time. He was 16. He and his friends, a few other boys, were sitting on a bench and watching people during a silent protest, when police and OMON [Belarusian riot police] started rounding everyone up, including him and his friends. He spent 24 hours in detention. 

Raman was shocked. He couldn’t stop talking about it. He’d say: “I can’t believe the cruelty with which police were treating people. I’ve never seen anything like this. There were old people, women, there was a mother with her child, they beat her up. They rounded up everyone, they were beating them up in the avtozak [police transit vehicle]. I’ve never seen such lawlessness.” 

That was his first detention. We talked a lot about it at the time. It changed his views profoundly. 

He was at the lyceum for the gifted and talented [students at the time]. The director of the lyceum talked to Roma and Roma said what he saw during protests was injustice. The lyceum administration put a lot of pressure on us. As one of the top students, Roma was a presidential grant recipient. They were calling me in my office all the time and saying that a psychologist should work with my son because he had wrong views. And I would say, “What do his views have to do with his academic performance?” We were forced to leave the lyceum. It was the second stressful moment, when he saw injustice again.

Was he thinking about becoming a journalist in school? 

Dmitry: In school, he was one of the best students, interested in computer science, physics, space exploration. When he started first grade, he read at a speed of a fifth grader. He had a room full of books, he probably had more books than the rest of the family. Physics was his favorite subject. 

In April 2011, he participated in the international space conference in St. Peterburg where he got a diploma from legendary [Russian] cosmonaut Georgy Grechko. Raman’s project was awarded second place of all participants — he proposed a new satellite cooling system.

He was also good at foreign languages. He went to a gymnasium that specialized in the Polish language. He learned Polish in addition to English. When he and his class went to a tour to Poland in sixth grade, the interpreter wasn’t very fast, so Roma took over. The whole class was following Roma and listening to him because he was interpreting better than a professional interpreter. 

Nataliya: In September [2011], because of his detention, no school wanted to accept Roma. The department of education officials told us, “He is going to be a bad influence on other students and should be home schooled.” After we had many meetings with officials at the ministry of education, Raman started the 11th grade in a regular district school in October [late, as the school year starts on September 1]. Everybody told Roma he wouldn’t get into a university because of his political views. 

In the 11th grade, he became friends with young journalists. He was going to protests to take pictures. His first job was with [independent Belarusian news site] after he met with journalists and Maryna Zolatava [’s chief editor, who is in detention]. She took him on as a freelancer although he was only 17. 

[After graduating from high school], he studied in a radio technical university for half an academic year, but he wasn’t interested. He told me, “Mom, it’s not my cup of tea,” so he dropped out and in the summer of 2012 he was accepted to a journalism school. He continued working as a reporter at the same time.

Have you faced any pressure from authorities as Raman’s parents?

Nataliya: In August 2020, we decided to flee Belarus for Poland. At night on August 17, we practically ran away with a couple of suitcases. The KGB officer called Dmitry before [the August 9 presidential] elections and asked to come to a meeting with him. During the meeting, the officers asked Dmitry to force Raman to return to Belarus from Poland. He said Raman should stop his work at NEXTA if he doesn’t want to feel sorry for his parents, grandparents, and his sister. These were direct threats, a week before the elections.

When I went to see my friends in their dacha outside Minsk, they received a phone call from the authorities while we were having tea. The person said, “If you are friends with Raman Pratasevich’s mother, you should influence her so Raman stops his activity, otherwise you’ll have problems.” You see, even my friends were threatened. I was followed. They knew where I was, they even told my friends [the authorities knew] their address. 

Our phones were probably also tapped because as soon as I called Roma or Roma called us, there would be clicks like they were recording or listening… There were people outside our house. 

On August 16, near our building, the OMON officers in balaclavas, black uniforms, and with dogs, started beating a taxi driver during protests. The men from our building went out to defend the poor man. I was watching it from my balcony, then we couldn’t just stand and watch it there, so my female neighbor and I went outside. It was messy, loud, violent. Then Roma called. I told him what happened and that I was trying to defend the poor man. Roma told me to go inside and lock all the doors. Dmitry was on his way home. We thought [the authorities would] come after us after the incident, and that they could come any moment now. 

We decided to leave Minsk and went to Ukraine for vacation, thinking it was a couple of weeks. I was technically on vacation, but my supervisors fired me. When we were still in Kyiv, we decided to go to Poland where we met up with Roma in September.

What do you think is next for Raman? Do the so-called confessions help Raman to get a shorter sentence or hasten his release? 

Nataliya: I can’t tell, nobody knows what will happen next. Laws don’t work in Belarus. The decisions are made arbitrarily. I haven’t slept since his arrest. 

In the first [confession] video, I saw very clear signs that he was beaten. I am his mother, I can tell. But I think it was obvious for everyone that he was beaten. 

At the press conference, his face looked better but who knows what’s under his clothes. Raman is under a lot of psychological pressure, I have no doubts about it. He is probably being threatened. I can only hope that if they are forcing him to say what they want, maybe they will stop beating him.