'Tortured' Belarusian activist paraded at press conference in Minsk

‘Tortured’ Belarusian activist who was dragged off hijacked Ryanair flight sparking international outrage is paraded at press conference in Minsk

  • Belarus journalist Roman Protasevich appeared at a press conference Monday
  • Told reporters he felt ‘wonderful’ and had ‘no complaints’ about his detention
  • Belarus officials offered their own version of events, showing reporters maps and saying there was ‘no interception’ or ‘forced diversion’ of the Ryanair plane
  • Flight forced to land in Minsk on May 23 amid bogus reports of a bomb threat  
  • Protasevich, 26, and girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, were detained on arrival
  • Both held in pre-trial detention, have appeared on Belarus state TV to confess 

Jailed Belarus journalist Roman Protasevich was paraded at a press conference in Minsk on Monday, telling reporters he felt ‘wonderful’ and had ‘no complaints’. 

The 26-year-old activist who was arrested when his Ryanair flight was forced to land on May 23, assured reporters he had not been beaten at the conference where officials presented their version of events. 

Officials then flatly refuted claims of a state-sponsored hijacking, telling reporters ‘there was no interception, no forced diversion from the state border or forced landing of the Ryanair plane.’ 

Protasevich, 26, was arrested with his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, when their flight from Athens to Lithuania was forced to land in Minsk amid bogus reports of a bomb threat. 

Jailed Belarus journalist Roman Protasevich appeared at a press conference in Minsk on Monday, telling reporters he felt ‘wonderful’

Protasevich sat alongside four officials, two of whom were in uniform, saying he had not been made to cooperate with the authorities 

Protasevich offered to undergo a full medical examination, if investigators would let him, to prove he was in ‘good health’.

He also addressed reporters ‘who wrote a lot about my health’ telling them ‘as you can see, I am in good health. I do not have any complaints, no one beat me, no one touched me at all.’ 

‘I understand the damage I have caused not only to the state, but also to the country. Now I want to do everything in my power to rectify this situation,’ he added.  

‘This is not a press conference but a scene of either Kafka or Orwell,’ Franak Viačorka, a senior adviser to exiled opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, wrote on Twitter.  

BBC reporters walked out of the conference saying on Twitter they were ‘not taking part’ because Protasevich was ‘clearly there under duress’. 

BBC reporters walked out of the conference saying on Twitter they were ‘not taking part’ because Protasevich was ‘clearly there under duress’

Officials told their own version of events, disputing claims of a state-sponsored hijacking, at the press conference in Minsk on Monday

Four officials, including two in uniform, told the press conference there was ‘no forced diversion’ of the Ryanair flight on May 23, using maps to demonstrate their point

It is his fourth appearance since he was arrested when his flight was forced to land in Belarus after controllers told the crew there was a bomb threat against it on May 23.

Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, were arrested when the plane from Athens to Vilnius landed in Minsk. 

Both are being held in pre-trial detention and have appeared on Belarusian state TV apparently confession their crimes. 

Protasevich was last seen on June 4 in a tearful interview aired on state media in which he confessed to calling for protests last year and praised Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko. 

Roman Protasevich appeared on state television on June 4 in a tearful interview (pictured) in which he praised Lukanshenko and confessed to calling for protests last year

At the end of the 1.5-hour interview broadcast by Belarus state-run channel ONT on June 4, Protasevich began crying and covered his face with his hands

Another video, released on June 2, showed a relaxed Protasevich, smoking as spoke about the opposition with an unidentified interrogator (pictured)

Another video, released on June 2, showed a relaxed Protasevich, smoking as spoke about the opposition with an unidentified interrogator. 

He made his first appearance following his arrest on May 24 and told viewers he was in good health and cooperating with the investigation. 

The same day, state media released a video of Sapega showing her confessing to organising mass riots and admitting to editing a social media channel that published personal information about Belarusian police officers. 


Dissident journalist Roman Protasevich (left) and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega (right) were arrested when their Ryanair flight was forced to land in Minsk on May 23

Belarus was rocked by strikes and weekly street protests after authorities announced that Lukashenko, who has ruled in authoritarian fashion since 1994, had secured re-election on August 9 with 80 per cent of votes. 

More than 35,000 people were arrested amid the protests and thousands beaten – moves that made him a pariah in the West. The flight’s diversion has now cornered the Belarusian strongman even more. 

There are fears both Protasevich and Sapega have been tortured and confessed under duress. 

Sapega’s parents say the confession is false, that she did not attend mass anti-government rallies in Minsk last summer, and that she only met her boyfriend in Lithuania in the New Year.  

Belarus has used video confessions to justify detentions and to attempt to dissuade the population from showing support for the opposition. 

Belarus was rocked by strikes and weekly street protests after authorities announced that Lukashenko, who has ruled in authoritarian fashion since 1994, had secured re-election on August 9 with 80 per cent of votes

Belarusian dog handler checks luggage from the Ryanair flight in Minsk International Airport on May 23

Ryanair flight FR4978 was flying from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania when it was escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet to Belarus amid fake reports of an IED on board

The forced diversion of the commercial liner mere miles from the Lithuanian border was denounced as an act of piracy by EU leaders.

They responded by barring Belarusian carriers from the bloc’s airspace and airports, and advising European airlines to fly around the country. 

On Saturday, May 30, the bloc offered Belarus £2.8 billion if Lukashenko stepped aside and the country peacefully transitioned to democracy. 

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the ‘development funding’ is ready once ‘the democratic choice of the Belarusian people’ is respected – after elections last year which Lukashenko claimed to have won but is widely thought to have lost. 

Von der Leyen said: ‘To the people of Belarus: We see and hear your desire for change, for democracy, and for a bright future. 

‘And to the Belarusian authorities: No amount of repression, brutality or coercion will bring any legitimacy to your authoritarian regime.’

But, the same weekend Lukashenko met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and ‘agreed a loan deal’ during a yacht tour in Sochi.    

Putin is the only world leader to defend Lukashenko over the hijacking.

Russia promised Belarus a £1.06 billion loan last year as part of Moscow’s efforts to stabilise its neighbour and longstanding ally. Minsk received a first installment of £352 million in October. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko (left) ‘agreed a loan deal’ during a yacht tour in Sochi on May 30

ROMAN PROTASEVICH: OPPOSITION BLOGGER FORCED INTO EXILE 

NEXTA, Protasevich’s outlet, was closely involved in reporting a wave of opposition protests that last year threatened to topple Lukashenko, before he was given backing by Vladimir Putin

Protasevich, 26, has long been a thorn in the side of Belarus’s hardline dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

He worked as an editor at the Poland-based Nexta Live channel, which is based on the Telegram messenger app and has over 1 million subscribers. 

The channel, which is openly hostile to Lukashenko, played an important role in broadcasting huge opposition protests against the President last year.

Nexta also helped coordinate those same protests, which were sparked by anger over what the opposition said was a rigged presidential election. 

The channel’s footage, which showed how harshly police cracked down on demonstrators, was used widely by international media at a time when the Belarusian authorities were reluctant to allow foreign media in.

In November Protasevich published a copy of an official Belarusian list of terrorists on which his name figured. 

The listing said he was accused of organising mass riots while working at Nexta. He also stands accused of disrupting social order and of inciting social hatred. He regards the allegations, which could see him jailed for years, as unjustified political repression.

Protasevich fled Belarus for Poland in 2019 due to pressure from the authorities, according to Media Solidarity, a group that supports Belarusian journalists. 

He moved his parents to Poland too after they were put under surveillance. He later relocated to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is also based.

Protasevich is currently editor-in-chief of a Belarusian political outlet hosted on the Telegram messaging app called ‘Belarus of the Brain’ which has around a quarter of a million subscribers.

He was flying back to Vilnius from Greece where he had spent time taking photographs of a visit there by Tsikhanouskaya. He had posted the pictures to social media before flying back. 

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