Prosecutors in the self-proclaimed Lugansk Republic (LNR) have accused Roman Protasevich, the activist who was arrested when his plane was forced to land in Minsk last month, of being part of the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion.
The LNR is an unrecognized state located in Ukraine, and has existed since the 2014 war in Donbass, when separatists unilaterally declared independence from Kiev. Founded in 2014, the Azov Battalion is an ultra-right military unit now incorporated into the National Guard of Ukraine, and is loyal to Kiev.
On Wednesday, LNR Prosecutor General Sergey Gorenko claimed that he had obtained evidence that Protasevich had taken part in the Donbass war on the side of Ukraine, fighting for the neo-Nazi militia.
Azov fought during the height of the Donbass war, first seeing action at the Battle of Mariupol. The group is heavily linked to neo-Nazi ideology, with the regiment’s logo featuring the Wolfsangel, a symbol of many divisions of the Nazi German Army during World War II. Joining the Azov Battalion is illegal in Donbass, as well as in Belarus.
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“Republican law enforcement managed to obtain sufficient irrefutable evidence of the involvement of the figure in the activities of the nationalist pro-Ukrainian ‘Azov’ group, which is banned in the LNR,” the prosecutor general said in a statement.
As reported earlier this month, LNR officials have already requested his extradition.
Protasevich, the editor of the opposition-aligned Belamova Telegram channel, classed by officials in Belarus as an ‘extremist organization’, was arrested in May after his Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was forced by Minsk to land in the Belarusian capital due to a supposed bomb threat. However, Swiss provider Proton Mail later claimed that the warning was sent via email after the plane had already diverted, contradicting Belarusian authorities.
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Shortly after his arrest, so-called evidence was later produced about Protasevich’s service in Donbass. The activist has previously admitted to spending time in the area as a journalist, even noting that he was once shot. However, he denies joining the battalion as a soldier.
This was later backed up by former Azov commander Andrey Biletsky.
“He was with us near Shirokino, where he was injured,” he explained. “But his weapon, as a journalist, was not a machine gun, but words.”
There are also June 2015 photos of apparently the same individual (uniformed & armed) with the Azov formation at the annual Liberation of Mariupol event. Per @Azure, that individual is with high-ish confidence Protasevich. pic.twitter.com/wwqloPBG2m
— Oleksiy Kuzmenko (@kooleksiy) June 2, 2021
Later, however, an old interview of his father was discovered, in which he revealed that Protasevich “fought” in Donbass. Photos later emerged of someone who looks like Protasevich holding a gun and wearing a uniform.
There is also no record of him producing any journalism while he was in the region and attached to the battalion.
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