Belarus opposition says jailed journalist is a ‘hostage’

Opposition says Minsk news conference with Roman Protasevich was another public appearance made under duress.

Jailed Belarus journalist Roman Protasevich takes part in a press conference about the forced landing of the Ryanair passenger plane on which he was travelling [Ramil Nasibulin/BelTA/Handout via Reuters]

Jailed Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich appeared at a news conference in Minsk on Monday saying he felt fine and had not been beaten. The opposition said the appearance was made under duress and showed he is a hostage.

Protasevich was arrested on May 23 when his flight from Greece to Lithuania was diverted to Minsk, accompanied by a Belarusian fighter jet, because of an alleged bomb threat.  Western countries denounced the incident as air piracy by Belarus.

In Monday’s appearance, Protasevich sat alongside four officials, two of whom were in uniform, saying he had not been made to cooperate with the authorities and that he was in good health after being arrested last month.

“Everything is fine with me. Nobody beat me, nobody touched me,” he said.

Franak Viacorka, a senior adviser to exiled Belarusian opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, said the video was “not a press conference but a scene of either Kafka or Orwell”.

“No matter what he says, let’s not forget: he is a hostage. And the regime is using him as a trophy,” he said.

The arrest of Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega and the forced diversion of the plane sparked uproar in the West.

The European Union has imposed sanctions, including asset freezes and visa bans, and told European operators not to use Belarusian air space.

But two senior officials at Monday’s news conference reiterated the official line in Minsk that the flight had to be diverted because they had received a bomb threat from the Palestinian group Hamas.

Several Western leaders have dismissed this version of events, notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel who described it as “completely implausible”.

Belarus of the Brain, the blogging outlet that Protasevich ran before his arrest, said his latest appearance was made under duress and showed the “strongest psychological pressure” being exerted on the 26-year-old.

Protasevich has made several appearances since his arrest and has admitted to plotting to topple Lukashenko by organising “riots” and recanted earlier criticism of the veteran leader.

Previously, authorities said Protasevich is an “extremist” who has facilitated violence. They have maintained that televised confessions by members of the opposition were made voluntarily.

In power since 1994, Lukashenko launched a violent crackdown on mass protests after winning a sixth term in an election last year that his opponents say was blatantly rigged. He denies electoral fraud.

Source: News Agencies