'Terrifying' video after journalist taken from 'hijacked' flight

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·Associate News Editor
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A friend of a journalist and opposition activist, who was detained after his Lithuania-bound flight was diverted to Belarus, fears he has been tortured to force him to admit to his involvement in organising mass protests against the nation's ruling party.

Belarusian dissident Roman Protasevich has appeared in a video late on Monday (local time) where he says he is in good health and acknowledges having played a role in organising mass disturbances in Minsk last year.

Appearing on several channels of the Telegram messaging app, Protasevich, wearing a dark sweatshirt and with his hands tightly clasped in front of him, says he is in a pre-trial detention facility in Minsk and denies having heart problems reported by some social media.

Belarusian blogger Roman Protasevich, detained when a Ryanair plane was forced to land in Minsk, is seen in a pre-trial detention facility, as he says, in Minsk, Belarus.
Belarusian blogger Roman Protasevich addressed the camera saying he was in good health and he was involved in the organisation of mass protests. Source: Reuters

The video shows him with a new mark on his forehead, a possible injury sustained while in detention.

"Police officers treat me properly and according to the law," he says.

He and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were detained on Sunday after their Ryanair flight was forced to land in Minsk after a false bomb threat.

A witness on board the flight said Protasevich was sent into a panic when he learnt of the flight's diversion.

“Don’t do this, they will kill me, I am a refugee,” a fellow passenger described him as saying, according to The Guardian.

Journalist Franak Viacorka, a friend of Protasevich, told Sky News in the UK he had previously been in detention and feared for Protasevich's safety.

"The first three days you are being interrogated, that's the most horrible part. They know how to force you to say anything," he said.

"I feel very, very sorry about Roman."

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against President Alexander Lukashenko as the leader of the main opposition in the 2020 Belarusian election, said it was clear Protasevich was coerced into a confession.

"This is how Raman looks under physical and moral pressure. I demand the immediate release of Raman and all political prisoners," she said.

Tsikhanouskaya's senior advisor Franak Viačorka called the video "terrifying".

The video appears to dispel claims of ill-health made online, including suggestions Protasevich is in a critical condition in hospital.

A Polish deputy foreign minister, Pawel Jablonski, told private broadcaster TVN24 that his government had heard from Protasevich's mother about him being in poor health but provided no details.

Student Sofia Sapega poses for a picture in Gothenburg, Sweden, in this undated photo taken in 2019. Sapega and Belarusian opposition activist and blogger Roman Protasevich were detained by Belarusian authorities after a forced landing of Ryanair Flight 4978 flying from Athens to Vilnius in Minsk on May 23, 2021.
Protasevich's student girlfriend Sofia Sapega has also been detained from the flight. Source: Reuters

Lukashenko, 66, has faced the biggest challenge of his nearly 27-year-old rule from protesters who took to the streets after he was declared the winner of an election last year they said was rigged.

About 35,000 people have been detained since the start of regular demonstrations in August 2020. Lukashenko denies electoral fraud and has accused the West of sponsoring the protests.

World reacts to 'aviation piracy'

European Union leaders meeting in Brussels called for Belarusian airlines to be banned from the 27-nation bloc's airspace and urged EU-based carriers to avoid flying over the former Soviet republic, according to a joint statement.

They also agreed to widen the list of Belarusian individuals they already sanction and called on the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to urgently investigate Belarus forcing the plane to land in Minsk.

"The reaction should be swift and be severe," Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo told journalists ahead of the EU summit.

Belarusians living in Poland and Poles supporting them hold up paper planes during a demonstration in front of the European Commission office in Warsaw on May 24, 2021, demanding freedom for Belarus opposition activist Roman Protasevich.
Belarusians living in Poland have protested Protasevich's detainment. Source: Getty Images

The EU and other Western countries also called for the release of Protasevich, who was detained when the plane landed.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the hijacking of the plane was "an attack on democracy".

She heavily criticised Russia, who has given its support to Belarus over the incident.

"Leaders all agreed that Russia is consistently challenging both our interests and our values by its actions in the past but also in the present," she said.

Protasevich 'a hero', his mother says

Protasevich's social media feed from exile has been one of the last remaining independent outlets for news about Belarus since a mass crackdown on dissents last year.

NEXTA, a news service where Protasevich worked before setting up his own widely followed blog, ran an interview with his mother, who said that as soon as she heard reports of a bomb scare on a flight, she knew it was a plot to capture him.

"I just want to say that my son is simply a hero, simply a hero," Natalia Protasevich said, weeping. "I truly hope that the international community will wake up for him."

Belarus says it acted in response to a false bomb threat written in the name of the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum denied his group had any knowledge or connection to the matter.

Belarus said its ground controllers had given guidance to the flight but had not ordered it to land. State media said the intervention was ordered personally by Lukashenko.

Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary, who referred to the incident as a state-sponsored hijacking, said he believed security agents had been on the flight.

Lithuanian authorities said five passengers never arrived, suggesting three others besides detainees Protasevich and Sapega had disembarked in Minsk.

With Reuters

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