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Jailed Belarusian activist Protasevich spent Donbass War with Neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, but was it as a soldier or journalist?

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Belarusian activist Roman Protasevich, who was arrested by police after his Ryanair flight was forced to land in Minsk, once served alongside the neo-Nazi, far-right Azov Battalion during the Donbass war, and was even wounded.

That’s according to multiple sources, who have revealed that the Belarusian spent a long time with the Ukrainian militia. However, there is some debate about his role with the battalion, with some believing he was just a volunteer journalist, and others suggesting he was involved in fighting.

According to the first head of the regiment, writing on his Telegram channel on Tuesday, Protasevich “fought against the occupation of Ukraine together with Azov and other military units.”

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Opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich, who is accused of participating in an unsanctioned protest at the Kuropaty preserve, waits before the beginning of a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus April 10, 2017. © REUTERS / Stringer
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“He was with us near Shirokino, where he was injured,” Andrey Biletsky explained. “But his weapon, as a journalist, was not a machine gun, but words.”

Founded in 2014, the Azov Battalion is a far-right military unit now incorporated into the National Guard of Ukraine. It 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 a Wolfsangel, a symbol of many divisions of the Nazi German army during World War II. Four years after the war began, in 2018, the US Congress blocked military aid to Azov due to its white supremacist leanings.

However, in the time since Biletsky’s comments on Tuesday, it has come to light that Protasevich may have done more than just volunteer as a journalist.

While he has never disclosed any affiliation with the far-right group, he has admitted publicly that he was in Donbass during the conflict. Speaking on the channel of Yuri Dud, a highly popular blogger and YouTuber in Russia, Protasevich admitted that he spent a prolonged period of time in the area.

“I spent a year in the Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone with a camera,” he said, claiming that he worked as a “journalist” and denying all participation in fighting.

“I mean, I did get shot, but all these years I’ve just been doing journalism work,” Protasevich said, also noting that he was present during the 2014 Maidan in Kiev.

However, as well as battalion head Biletsky’s claim that Protasevich “fought against the occupation of Ukraine together with Azov,” other sources have come out with claims that Protasevich joined the group in 2014.

“He did not participate in hostilities, but he was with the battalion in the Donbass. He was a photographer and, as I understand it, a volunteer,” an unnamed Belarusian journalist said, according to the Times of London. The publication has since removed this quote.

One of Ukraine’s most prestigious newspapers, Mirror Weekly (Zerkalo Nedeli), also confirmed that “the Belarusian at one time worked in the Azov press service,” even noting that “there is no doubt that Russia will try to take advantage of the situation.”

On Twitter, British war journalist Jake Hanrahan claimed that Protasevich actually was involved in the conflict. However, he claimed it was not with the neo-Nazi battalion but “with a Belarus[sian] unit that fought alongside Azov.”

“He joined a volunteer unit that chose to fight alongside Azov,” Hanrahan clarified. “He also shared many of their views as seen by the far-right iconography on the T-shirts he’s been pictured wearing.”

Later, an old interview of his father was discovered, in which he revealed that Protasevich “fought” in Donbass.

Also on Twitter, Washington, DC-based investigative reporter Aleksey Kuzmenko analyzed suggestions that Protasevich was featured on the front of the Azov Batallion’s Black Sun publication in 2015. A low-quality picture of a man in uniform, who looks remarkably like Protasevich, became the subject of debate over the true identity of the person on the cover of the magazine. After analyzing the photos using Microsoft Azure’s facial verification software, it appeared that it really was the Belarusian activist.

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However, while it is clear that Protasevich certainly was attached to the Azov Battalion, it has not yet been confirmed whether he was there just as a journalist or if he took up arms.

“He did not serve in the regiment and was not listed in the regiment’s lists,” said Yuri K., one of the members of the Azov Battalion from 2014-2015. “Some of the foreigners fought, but most of them were not allowed on the front line… Protasevich did not take part in the fighting.”

Another Azov veteran, Viktor, told Strana that Protasevich came to the second line and did not take direct part in the battles, but worked in the unit as a volunteer.

“The photo in the Azov newspaper with a fighter who looks similar to Protasevich is most likely staged,” Viktor said. “At the time [when] he was in a good mood, he often came as a journalist… young, good-looking. So they took it off for the front page of the newspaper.”

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