Belarus airs questioning of jailed journalist Protasevich

The reporter calls for opposition to abandon street protests in an interview aired on state television.

Protasevich was arrested last month after the May 23 Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania he was on board was forced to land in Minsk [ONT channel via AP]

Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich has said in questioning, aired on state television on Wednesday, that there was no use in the country’s political opposition calling for street protests against longtime President Alexander Lukashenko.

Protasevich was arrested last month along with his girlfriend after the May 23 Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania the pair were on board was forced to land in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

In his second appearance since the incident, Protasevich appeared relaxed, smoking as he spoke with an unidentified interlocutor.

“There is simply no [protest] activity right now,” the 26-year-old said in the broadcast that repeated the Belarusian claim that the plane had to be diverted after a bomb threat from Hamas. The Palestinian group has denied any involvement.

“Now we need to abandon … the street activity we had before, those formats in which we worked. Because there is simply no such activity now, and there can’t be any now,” Protasevich said.

“When I was in Vilnius, I said openly that street protests weren’t needed. At the very least, we have to wait for the economic situation to heat up for people to take to the streets for a bowl of soup.”

The Belarusian opposition, which last week said it was preparing to stage a new phase of active anti-government demonstrations following earlier rallies last year, did not immediately comment on the broadcast.

The opposition has previously suggested prior video confessions made last month by Protasevich and his girlfriend, Russian citizen Sofia Sapega, were coerced. Both now face criminal charges.

Protasevich alleges ‘set up’

The video of Protasevich, who fled Belarus in 2019, came after a first appearance on state television last week during which he said he had helped orchestrate mass anti-government protests that erupted in the wake of Lukashenko winning a sixth term in office during a disputed August election.

The protests fizzled over the winter amid a harsh crackdown by Belarusian authorities which saw tens of thousands of people arrested.

Protasevich’s parents, who live in Poland, said the confession seemed to have been coerced and that makeup appeared to be covering up bruising on his face.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled leader of the Belarusian opposition, said on Monday she believed Protasevich had been beaten and tortured in prison.

In his latest appearance, Protasevich said he had been set up before his arrest by an unidentified associate.

He described seeing heavily armed special forces waiting as the plane taxied to a parking spot.

“It was a dedicated SWAT unit — uniforms, flak jackets and weapons,” Protasevich said.

The journalist said he disclosed his travel plans in a chat with associates 40 minutes before his departure. He alleged that the bomb threat could have been issued by someone with whom he had a personal conflict, but did not elaborate.

Protasevich alleged that the person — whom he did not identify — had links with opposition-minded hackers who have attacked official Belarusian websites and issued bomb threats in the past.

“The first thing I thought was that I have been set up,” he said. “When the plane was on a landing path, I realised that it’s useless to panic.”

Belarusian authorities have claimed they were unaware Protasevich was on board the May 23 flight.

Wednesday’s broadcast appeared designed to back the contention.

The presenter of the broadcast on the ONT channel claimed officials did not know Protasevich was a passenger on the plane when they ordered it to land in the country’s capital.

Retaliatory sanctions

Western countries have condemned Lukashenko’s government over the forced landing of the aircraft, and many European Union countries have imposed airspace restrictions on Belarusian national airline Belavia.

The EU and the United States have also rolled out retaliatory sanctions.

But Lukashenko has defended the flight diversion as a legitimate response to the bomb threat and pledged to respond harshly to the sanctions.

On Thursday, Belarus told the US it was reducing the permitted number of diplomatic and other staff at the US diplomatic mission to Minsk in response to Washington’s measures.

In a statement on its website, the ministry said it was also tightening visa procedures for the US citizens working at the mission.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies