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In prison video, Belarusian dissident jailed after flight diversion says he was set up

A man sits at a table with folded hands.
Dissident Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich.
(Associated Press)

A dissident journalist arrested after Belarus diverted the commercial flight he was traveling on said in a video from prison that he was set up by an unidentified associate.

The footage of Roman Protasevich was part of an hourlong TV program aired late Wednesday by Belarus’ government-controlled ONT channel. In the video, the 26-year-old Protasevich is also shown saying that protests against Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko are now pointless amid a tough crackdown and suggesting that the opposition wait for a more opportune moment.

A top associate of Protasevich said the journalist was clearly speaking under duress.

The TV program claimed that Belarusian authorities were unaware that Protasevich was on board the Ryanair jet en route from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, when flight controllers diverted it to Minsk on May 23, citing a bomb threat. Lukashenko sent a fighter jet to escort the plane to Minsk, Belarus’ capital.

No bomb was found, but Protasevich was arrested along with his Russian girlfriend. The forced landing outraged the European Union, which responded by barring Belarus’ flagship carrier from its skies, told European airlines to skirt Belarus and drafted bruising new sanctions against key sectors of the Belarusian economy.

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Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet nation of 9.3 million with an iron fist for more than a quarter-century, has accused the West of trying to “strangle” his country with sanctions.

Roman Protasevich long feared that Belarusian authorities would try to abduct him, even though he had fled the country. They arrested him Sunday.

Belarus has been rocked by months of protests fueled by Lukashenko’s reelection to a sixth term in an August vote that was widely seen as rigged. Lukashenko has only intensified the crackdown on protesters, and more than 35,000 people have been arrested since the protests began, with thousands beaten.

Protasevich, who left Belarus in 2019, has become a top foe of Lukashenko. He ran a widely popular channel on the Telegram messaging app that played a key role in helping organize the huge anti-government protests and was charged with inciting mass disturbances — charges that carry a 15-year prison sentence.

Lukashenko last week accused Protasevich of fomenting a “bloody rebellion.”

Speaking in the ONT film, Protasevich acknowledged that the protests have fizzled and argued that the opposition should wait until economic problems gave rise to broad public discontent.

Belarus’ isolation is deepening as commercial planes avoid its airspace and the European Union works up new sanctions.

“We need to wait until the economic situation worsens ... and people take to the street for a mug of soup, to put it bluntly,” he said.

Lukashenko has defended the Ryanair flight diversion as a legitimate response to the bomb threat. The ONT program appeared designed to back that contention by claiming that the Belarusian authorities were unaware that Protasevich was on the plane when they diverted it.

In the video, the journalist said he put a notice about his travel plans on a chat with associates 40 minutes before his departure and alleged that the bomb threat could have been issued by someone with whom he had a personal conflict. His remarks didn’t elaborate on the conflict.

He said that the perceived ill-wisher — whom he didn’t name — had links with opposition-minded hackers who have attacked Belarusian official websites and issued bomb threats in the past.

“The first thing I thought was that I have been set up,” Protasevich said.

“When the plane was on a landing path, I realized that it’s useless to panic,” Protasevich said. He described seeing heavily armed special forces waiting after the plane taxied to a parking spot.

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

Last month, Protasevich noted that he had a rift with Franak Viachorka, an advisor to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate in the August presidential election, who fled to Lithuania after the vote under official pressure. Viachorka and Protasevich both accompanied Tsikhanouskaya on a visit to Greece in May.

Asked about the video, Viachorka told the Associated Press that Protasevich now is “a hostage under pressure” and insisted that they have maintained friendly ties.

A day after his arrest, Protasevich appeared in a video from detention that was broadcast on Belarusian state TV. Speaking rapidly and in a monotone, he said he was confessing to staging mass disturbances. His parents, who now live in Poland, said the confession appeared coerced.

In the ONT film, Protasevich said he tried to stay away from his girlfriend after the landing, hoping that the authorities wouldn’t arrest her. Sofia Sapega didn’t feature in the new TV program, but she was shown in a video from prison last week, confessing to running a channel that revealed personal data about Belarus’ security officers.


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