Belarusian opposition journalist Protasevich in detention centre video and confesses to crimes

Belarusian opposition journalist Protasevich in detention centre video and confesses to crimes
Top opposition journalist Roman Protasevich was arrested at the weekend after a MiG fighter forced a commercial airliner to divert to Minsk, where he is wanted on extremist charges. He appeared in a video shot in the detention centre appearing to confess to his crimes. / wiki
By Ben Aris in Berlin May 25, 2021

Belarusian opposition journalists Roman Protasevich appeared on a video released by a pro-government Telegram channel on May 25, the day after a commercial Ryanair flight was ordered to the ground on May 23 and he was arrested. Protasevich said he was being treated well and admitted to organising mass protests, one of the charges levelled against him that carries up to 15 years in jail if convicted.

He also denied that he was unwell after earlier reports said that he was in hospital with heart problems, reportedly claimed his mother.

"I can say that I have no health problems.... I continue co-operating with investigators and am confessing to having organised mass unrest in the city of Minsk," he says in the video as cited by RFE/RL.

Observers claim that marks on Protasevich’s forehead showed that he had been beaten and also claim the video was made under duress.

“The regime's propaganda channels posted a video of arrested Raman Pratasevich, saying that he is treated lawfully in the Minsk Detention Center №1. This is how Raman looks under physical and moral pressure. I demand the immediate release of Raman and all political prisoners,” opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said in a tweet commentating on the video.

Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya made a similar video a few days after protests broke out following the disputed August 9 presidential elections. She visited the Central Election Commission (CEC) offices to lodge a formal complaint of vote rigging but was met by two members of the security services. A few hours later she released a teary video where she read woodenly from a paper, calling on Belarusians to end the protests and declaring her belief that Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko was the legitimate winner of the elections. That night she fled with her children to the Lithuania capital of Vilnius and has tirelessly been touring Europe since to lobby support again the Lukashenko regime.

Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, are now both reportedly in the notorious Okrestina prison in central Kyiv, where most of the opposition leaders were held during the height of last summer’s protests.

Videos smuggled out of the prison showed officers routinely beating prisoners and there have been numerous reports of mistreatment and even rape of detainees held in the facility.  

Belarusian authorities have not released any details of the charges against Sapega, nor has the Kremlin commented on the detention of a Russian citizen by the Belarus authorities. Sapega managed to get a one-word text away to her family before she detained: “mum.”  

EU reaction

EU foreign ministers attended a scheduled meeting to discuss sanctions on Russia and Belarus.

European Commission President Ursula von den Leyen followed up her strong criticism of the forced landing of the Ryanair flight with some more details of some of the sanctions the EC is planning.

“These sanctions will cover:

• Individuals involved in this hijacking

• Businesses that finance the regime

• The aviation sector

We will keep pressure on the regime until it respects the freedom of opinion and of the media.

Raman Pratasevich must be released immediately,” von den Leyen tweeted using the Belarusian transliteration of the journalist’s name.

The UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab announced that landing rights for the state-owned Belavia have been suspended and the national airline will not be allowed to land in Britain.

Several countries have suspended flights in Belarus airspace, including Germany’s Lufthansa, Air Baltic, Hungary’s Wizz Air, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), all UK airlines and all Ukrainian airlines.

The UN agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), says its 36 diplomatic representatives will meet on May 27 to discuss Belarus's actions and the possibility of more restrictions on Belarusian aviation.

The ban on flights between Ukraine and Minsk will come as a serious inconvenience for Russian and Ukrainian businessmen, as there are no direct flghts between Kyiv and Moscow due to sanctions and business people routinely fly via Minsk when travelling between the two capitals.

Minsk expelled all of Latvia’s diplomats after Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevic and Riga Mayor Martins Stakis replaced the Belarusian national flag in front of the Radisson Blu Hotel Latvija in central Riga, where teams participating in the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship are staying, with a white-red-white banner that used by the opposition.

The former Belarusian ambassador to Latvia, who denounced Lukashenko coup and was sacked, replaced the Belarusian national flag at a sporting competition with the red and white version used by the opposition. Latvia expelled all of Belarus’ diplomats in a tit-for-tat retaliation later the same day.

Latvia’s ambassador was given 24 hours to leave Belarus, while other embassy employees have 48 hours. Only one Latvian diplomat will be allowed to stay in Minsk.

The European Union, Belgium and the Czech Republic have also summoned the Belarusian ambassadors to protest against the forced landing.

"This was effectively aviation piracy, state sponsored," Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said.

The French presidency said a request had been sent to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to suspend international flights over Belarusian airspace while an investigation is launched.

The ICAO has described the incident as a possible violation of international air travel rules.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken

— max seddon (@maxseddon) May 24, 2021 Transport Minister claimed that the plane was carrying a bomb manufactured by Hamas, which was the reason the plane was halted and diverted to Minsk from its scheduled route.

A spokesperson for the Ministry read out the text of what he said was a bomb threat: "We, the soldiers of Hamas, demand that Israel cease fire in the Gaza Strip. We demand that the European Union withdraw its support for Israel in this war," said the head of the transport ministry's aviation department. "There is a bomb on that plane. If you do not comply with our demands, the bomb will explode over Vilnius on 23 May," he said.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum denied his group had any knowledge or connection to the plane that was diverted and forced to land in Minsk. Barhoum said the group "has nothing to do with that completely."

"We don’t resort to these methods, which could be the doing of some suspicious parties that aim to demonise Hamas and foil the state of world sympathy with our Palestinian people and their legitimate resistance," the Hamas spokesman said as cited by Reuters.

In another addition to the official Belarusian line, officials said they had no idea that Protasevich was on board the plane and that he was discovered by accident and then arrested.

The rest of Europe simply scoffed at the bomb story. German Chancellor Angela Merkel dismissed that explanation as "completely implausible."

"We have seen a forced landing that led to the arrest [of Protasevich]," Merkel said on May 24 as she arrived at the EU emergency summit in Brussels. "All other explanations for the landing of this Ryanair flight are completely implausible."

Lukashenko turns the screws some more

Lukashenko continued to turn the screws on the opposition also promulgating a new law that will increase restrictions on the media and civil society. Under the new laws it is now illegal to livestream protests; publish results of “unaccredited” polls; host public events without the government’s approval; and receive financing from foreign countries as a media organisation.

Nexta was the first Telegram channel to be labelled extremist but the government added 50 more names to the list, the country’s interior ministry told TASS on May 25.

"As of May 24, thirty Telegram channels and 22 Telegram chats have been recognised as extremist by Belarusian courts," it said.

The ministry warned that reposting data from these channels and chats is punishable under Belarus’ law. "The storage of extremist material, as well as a subscription to the Telegram channel and chats recognised as extremist, are subject to administrative liability," the ministry noted.

The Russia connection

The mystery surrounding four Russian nationals on the Ryanair flight who chose not to rejoin the plane when it left has led to speculation that somehow the Kremlin was involved in the decision to force the commercial flight to land in Minsk.

"It looks like this was a joint operation by the FSB and the Belarusian KGB," Yashin

There is no information about who the four Russians were or what they were doing on the flight but that has not stopped the accusations flying.

So far the Kremlin has made only a very muted response. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the incident, saying little more than that "international air travel authorities” should assess whether existing standards were followed. But Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova and others in the Kremlin orbit drew parallels with an incident in 2013, when a flight from Moscow carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales was diverted to Austria after reports that fugitive US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden might be on board.

"What is shocking is that the West has described the incident in Belarusian airspace as shocking. The so-called civilised democracies’ tendency to follow the ‘quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi’ [What is permissible for Jupiter may not be permissible for a bull] principle has long been irrelevant because the former leaders have lost leadership skills. The blood and suffering of millions of people across the world have yanked the pedestal from under Western demagogues, from where they have been preaching," Zakharova said in a press conference before going on to expand on the Bolivian president incident in 2013.

Protasevich’s Russian girlfriend, who was travelling with him back to Vilnius, was also arrested.

Sofia Sapega, 23, was detained and this has been confirmed by her family, the European Humanities University (EHU) spokesman where she was due to defend her master’s thesis this week in international law.

The university spokesman said Sapega and Protasevich had been on vacation in Greece together.

"As a result of a cover operation by the Belarusian authorities, the student was detained by the Administration of the Investigative Committee for the city of Minsk on groundless and made-up conditions", the university said in a statement as cited by Reuters.

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has yet to comment on the arrest of one of its nationals by Belarus, which has yet to say on what grounds Sapega was arrested.   

Protasevich's girlfriend, a 23-year-old international law student, was also arrested on May 23 and is now in a high-security jail in Minsk.