Social media posts claim Protasevich has ties with neo-Nazi groups. They have been dismissed as an attempt to discredit him.
Shortly after journalist Roman Protasevich was arrested in Belarus onboard a Ryanair passenger plane diverted by Minsk, reports linking the dissident to neo-Nazi groups began to appear online.
The stories were initially published in Russian-language media and quickly spread in dozens of languages.
Photos of young men doing Nazi salutes or wearing SS insignia began to pop up on social media, falsely claiming to show Protasevich in his younger years, according to AFP news agency.
The journalist was also alleged to have fought alongside “neo-Nazis” in Ukraine in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea.
According to Euvsdisinfo.eu -- a website of the European Union's foreign service set up to counter alleged Russian disinformation -- the claims are a deliberate attempt at Protasevich's online denigration.
"For pro-Kremlin outlets, such messages help to kill two birds with one stone: not only to discredit the jailed Belarusian dissident but also to perpetuate the narrative of 'Nazi Ukraine'," it said.
Journalist or soldier?
In an interview last year, Protasevich admitted spending some time with Ukrainian paramilitary units in eastern Ukraine after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
Many posts say he fought with the Azov battalion, some of whose soldiers have been known to harbour white supremacist and neo-Nazi views.
Some online claims about Protasevich also contain photos of a young man bearing resemblance to him in a military uniform, often surrounded by soldiers wearing the insignia of the Azov battalion.
In other pictures, he is brandishing a Kalashnikov rifle and smiling for the camera.
AFP news agency says it has not been able to verify that Protasevich was the man on these pictures.
Protasevich's family, colleagues and even some Azov fighters insist that he was in Ukraine only as a journalist, even if he was embedded with Ukrainian forces.
"Roman was indeed together with Azov and other military units that fought against the occupation of Ukraine, though his weapon as a journalist wasn’t an automatic rifle but the written word," wrote Azov commander Andriy Biletsky on his Telegram channel.
Other pictures falsely purporting to portray Protasevich doing Nazi salutes or wearing SS insignia circulated online, says AFP.
Konstantin Akhromenko, a young Belarusian, confirmed his identity to AFP and said the picture was taken "10-12 years ago".
"We were never Nazis. We took such photos just for laughs because the Belarusian state propaganda called us Nazis," said.
Similarly, the man in the SS helmet turned out to be not Protasevich but Eduard Lobov, a former Belarusian political prisoner who became a volunteer fighter in eastern Ukraine.