An American who faces criminal charges for participating in the January 6 riot at the United States Capitol is seeking asylum in Belarus, the nation’s state TV reported on Monday – a sign of heightening tensions between the turbulent former Soviet state and the US.
Evan Neumann, 48, of California, taunted and screamed profanities at US Capitol police on January 6 before putting a gas mask over his face and threatening one officer, saying police would be “overrun” by the crowd, according to US prosecutors.
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But in an interview with state TV channel Belarus 1, Neumann rejected the charges, which include assault, obstruction and other offences, claiming he is being politically persecuted.
“I don’t think I have committed some kind of a crime,” Neumann said, according to a Belarus 1 voiceover of his interview remarks. “One of the charges was very offensive; it alleges that I hit a police officer. It doesn’t have any grounds to it.”
Hundreds of supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol on January 6 in a bid to force Congress to postpone proceedings to certify Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential election win. The incident has become a controversial dividing line between Republicans and Democrats in US politics.
A special committee of the Democrat-led US House of Representatives is investigating Trump and his Republican allies’ alleged roles in inciting the mob which used chemical spray, tasers and improvised weapons. Police responded with tear gas and riot squads. More than 650 individuals have been charged for their actions on January 6, according to the FBI which issued a warrant for Nuemann’s arrest in March.
The Belarus 1 channel promoted excerpts of its interview with Neumann on Sunday and announced it would broadcast the full version on Wednesday. Neumann spoke in English but was dubbed over in Russian for the broadcast, The Associated Press reported.
The FBI alleges that Neumann stood at the front of a police barricade wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat as a mob of pro-Trump rioters tried to force past officers, according to court papers reviewed by Al Jazeera.
“I’m willing to die, are you?” prosecutors quoted Neumann saying to police.
Washington Metropolitan Police body camera video shows Neumann and others shoving a metal barricade into a line of officers who were trying to push the crowd back before he punches two officers with his fist and then hits them with the barricade.
Neumann was identified by investigators after someone who said they were a family friend called an FBI tip line with Neumann’s name and hometown of Mill Valley, California. He was charged in a US federal criminal complaint that included detailed body camera images of Neumann battling with police and mobile phone data showing he was inside the Capitol building.
Neumann told Belarus 1 that his photo had been added to the FBI’s most-wanted list, after which he left the country under the pretence of a business trip. Neuman, who owns a handbag manufacturing business, travelled to Italy in March, and then through Switzerland, Germany and Poland. When he got to Ukraine he spent several months there.
He said he decided to illegally cross into neighbouring Belarus after he noticed surveillance by Ukraine’s security forces. “It is awful. It is political persecution,” Neumann told the TV channel.
Belarusian border guards detained the American when he tried to cross into Belarus and requested asylum in mid-August. Belarus does not have an extradition treaty with the US.
The US embassy in Belarus declined a request by the AP for comment. A US Department of Justice official said the DOJ would not comment “on the existence or non-existence of requests for apprehension to foreign governments”.
Belarus 1 television anchors described Neumann as a “simple American, whose stores were burned down by members of the Black Lives Matter movement, who was seeking justice, asking inconvenient questions, but lost almost everything and is being persecuted by the US government”.
In a short preface to the interview, the Belarus 1 reporter also said that “something” made Neumann “flee from the country of fairy-tale freedoms and opportunities” – an apparent snub towards the US, which has levied multiple sanctions against Belarus over human rights abuses and violent crackdowns on dissent.
Belarus was rocked by months-long protests after election officials gave authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term in an August 2020 presidential election that the opposition and the West have denounced as a sham.
Lukashenko’s government unleashed a violent crackdown on the protesters, arresting more than 35,000 people and badly beating thousands of them. The crackdown elicited widespread international outrage.