Belarus journalist who was dragged off hijacked Ryanair plane with his girlfriend appears on state TV to say he’s ‘confessing’ to crimes – after colleagues said he was almost certainly being tortured
- Dissident journalist Roman Protasevich has said he is ‘confessing’ to crimes in video on Belarusian state TV
- The opposition blogger, 26, was detained after flight from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land at Minsk
- Russia has voiced approval of the ‘hijacking’ saying it was an ‘absolutely reasonable approach’ to the arrest
- Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has voiced concerns Protasevich, 26, is likely being ‘tortured’
- Belarus claimed that there was a bomb threat but Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary poured scorn on the notion
- Suspicions surround four Russian citizens who voluntarily left plane in Minsk, not continuing to Lithuania
- Aircraft have been instructed to avoid Belarusian airspace following the ‘state-sponsored hijack’
- Tory MP Tom Tugendhat called it ‘a warlike act,’ joining the British, Irish and United States governments
- Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has said further sanctions were being considered against Lukashenko
PUBLISHED: 20:36, 24 May 2021 | UPDATED: 22:21, 24 May 2021
A dissident journalist who was dragged off a Ryanair plane and detained by the Belarusian regime in an extraordinary hijacking on Sunday has appeared for the first time since his arrest to say he is ‘confessing’ to organising anti-regime protests in a video being shown on state TV.
Roman Protasevich, an opposition blogger who founded news outlet Nexta in Poland and broadcast footage of huge demonstrations which erupted across Belarus last year, was detained after his flight from Greece to Lithuania was diverted to Minsk by a warplane on the pretext of a bomb threat.
The 26-year-old, who is facing charges that carry the death penalty, has now said he is cooperating with investigators and ‘confessing’ to charges of organising anti-regime protests in a clip which is being shown by state media. His supporters said he was almost certainly being tortured.Dailymail.co.uk: News, Sport, Showbiz, Celebrities from Daily MailPauseNext video0:04 / 1:43SettingsFull-screenRead More
Protasevich also denied having health problems following reports that he was in hospitalised with a heart condition – claims rubbished by the Belarus Interior Ministry in a statement on Monday.
‘I am in Detention Centre No1 in Minsk. I can say that I have no health problems, including with my heart or any other organs,’ he said in the clip that appears to have been filmed on a phone camera.
He is wearing a black hoodie and sits behind a table in a non-descript room with a pack of cigarettes by his side, and fidgets with his hands as he makes the statement and some dark markings are visible on his forehead.
‘The attitude of employees towards me is as correct as possible and according to the law. I continue cooperating with investigators and am confessing to having organised mass unrest in the city of Minsk,’ Protasevich said.
Earlier, the Belarus Interior Ministry said the Lukashenko critic was being held in Minsk and dismissed unconfirmed reports he was hospitalised with a heart condition. ‘The administration of the institution has not received any complaints about his health,’ the ministry said on its Telegram channel.
Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has previously appeared in a similar video published by state media in which she urged her supporters not to protest after last year’s election, said the video was made under ‘physical and moral pressure’ and called for his ‘immediate’ release.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya earlier sparked fears that she Protasevich was likely in ‘awful circumstances’ and being tortured, telling Sky News: ‘We’re really afraid, not only for his freedom but for his life.’
It comes as EU leaders tonight agreed new sanctions against Belarus, including a ban on the use of its airspace and airports after Brussels chief Ursula von der Leyen slammed Lukashenko’s ‘outrageous and illegal behaviour’. Detained journalist Roman Protasevich says he is ‘confessing’ to crimesLoaded: 0%Progress: 0%0:00PreviousPlaySkipMuteCurrent Time0:00/Duration Time0:29FullscreenNeed Text
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Roman Protasevich, who was dragged off a Ryanair civilian airliner and arrested by the Belarusian regime, has said that he is ‘confessing’ to charges of organising protests and cooperating with authorities in a video being circulated on state TV, left. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko pictured right +22
Opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, (pictured after he was separated from other passengers) was hauled off the plane and arrested with his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, after the flight from Greece to Lithuania made the emergency landing in Minsk+22
Opposition journalist Roman Protasevich’s girlfriend Sofia Sapega who was also detained+22
The airliner full of tourists made an emergency landing at Minsk Airport yesterday after being escorted by a MiG-29 fighter jet amid reports of a bomb on board +22
Ryanair flight FR4978 had been 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. It was forced to make an emergency landing at Minsk Airport, where authorities arrested dissident journalist Roman Protasevich
- Britain condemns ‘outlandish action’ after Belarus hijacks…US Secretary of State Blinken leads condemnation of Belarus…Millions of families are ‘ignoring’ Government advice and…
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Lukashenko ‘has turned Belarus into North Korea in Europe’: Backlash to hijacking ramps up as West summons Belarus ambassadors and new sanctions are prepared
Berlin, London and Brussels summoned the Belarusian ambassadors, as exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called for an independent probe, new sanctions and for Minsk to be excluded from international aviation bodies.
‘An act of state terrorism was carried out and now any passengers flying over Belarus in a civilian aircraft will be in danger,’ Tikhanovskaya told reporters in Vilnius.
‘The regime has turned our country into North Korea in the middle of Europe,’ she said.
The EU and other Western countries have already imposed a wide range of sanctions on Lukashenko’s government over a brutal crackdown on opposition demonstrations that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term last August.
Together with co-founder Stepan Putilo, Protasevich until recently ran the Nexta telegram channel that helped organise protests that were the biggest challenge to Lukashenko’s rule since he took power in the ex-Soviet country in 1994.
Belarus insisted it had acted legally over the grounding of the Ryanair jet, accusing the West of making ‘unfounded accusations’ for political reasons.
Its air force chief said the plane’s captain had decided to land in Belarus ‘without outside interference’ and that the pilot could have chosen to go to Ukraine or Poland.
A senior Belarusian transport official said the authorities received a letter claiming to be from Hamas threatening to blow up the plane over Vilnius unless the EU renounced support for Israel.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel dismissed Minsk’s explanations as ‘completely implausible’ as the EU pushed for a probe by the International Civil Aviation Organization. The ICAO, a UN agency, is to meet on Thursday.
Protasevich, an outspoken critic of Belarusian Lukashenko – dubbed ‘Europe’s last dictator’ – was wanted for his role in organising massive protests against him after rigged elections last year.
The Belarus Interior Ministry said Protasevich is being held in the capital Minsk and dismissed unconfirmed reports that he was hospitalised. Earlier, Belarusian media reported that Protasevich’s mother received unconfirmed reports that her son was in hospital and in critical condition because of heart problems.
‘This information does not correspond with reality,’ the ministry said on its Telegram channel.
It added that ‘the arrested person is in custody’ and is being held in Detention Centre No1 in central Minsk.
‘The administration of the institution has not received any complaints about his health,’ the ministry said.
Protasevich’s flight made a sharp deviation from its course just a few miles from the Lithuanian border before landing in Minsk on Sunday, leading some aviation experts to believe that the Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet may even have threatened to shoot down the Ryanair passenger plane.
Suspicions have fallen on four passengers, believed to be agents from the Belarus’s secret service – known as the KGB, the same name as its Russian counterpart – who voluntarily departed in Minsk, not continuing with the flight when it travelled on to its final destination, the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
Their presence has stoked fears that Belarusian or Russian agents were involved in a murky operation to arrest Protasevich who had begged the crew not to follow the order, saying ‘they will kill me’ and telling a fellow passenger on the ground that he faced ‘the death penalty.’
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab raised the possibility of direct Russian involvement in the diversion of the civilian airliner, telling MPs earlier today: ‘It’s very difficult to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow.’
Yale University History Professor Timothy Snyder also added fuel to rumours of Russian participation in the plot, claiming in a tweet: ‘Belarus would not have hijacked an EU plane without Russian approval’.
But Russia threw its weight behind Belarus today, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying that Lukashenko was taking an ‘absolutely reasonable approach’ to the detention of Protasevich.
Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova also mocked the Western indignation at the alleged hijacking, writing on Facebook she was ‘shocked that the West calls the incident in Belarusian air space ‘shocking” and accusing Western nations of ‘kidnappings, forced landings, and illegal arrests’.
Lukashenko, an ally of Vladimir Putin, personally gave the ‘unequivocal order’ to ‘make the plane do a U-turn and land,’ according to a statement by Belarus’s presidential news service.
Tsikhanouskaya called for wider sanctions on the Lukashenko’s regime after Protasevich’s arrest, which she said was ‘the result of impunity’.
‘For nine months already we have been fighting against the regime after fraudulent elections, but the regime still feels impunity and you see they use such awful methods of kidnapping people,’ she said.
‘We have to put much more pressure on this regime for them to stop violence and to release political prisoners.’
She said she though it ‘unbelievable’ the regime had lasted long under these circumstances, especially because ‘the whole county is against the regime’.
‘The only question is, how many victims will there be during this fight for freedom and for democracy? I’m sure that these changes will come soon’, she added.
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.
Meanwhile, Minsk Airport was at the centre of fresh drama on Monday after it suspended boarding of a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt over security fears after receiving a tip-off about a possible terrorist act.
Lufthansa said in a written statement on Monday that Minsk authorities, prompted by a security alert, had unloaded luggage and freight from flight LH1487 and carried out renewed security checks on 56 people on board, including five crew members.
Minsk airport said measures for the screening of passengers, baggage and aircraft had been completed and that the aircraft was preparing again for departure. The airport was operating normally, it said.
‘The message about the terrorist attack, which was received earlier by e-mail of the airport, was not confirmed,’ the airport said.
Earlier, Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary condemned ‘state-sponsored piracy’ by Belarus after one of his passenger jets was yesterday forced to land by a warplane on the pretext of a bomb threat.
‘I think it’s very frightening for the crew, for the passengers who were held under armed guard, had their bags searched,’ he told Newstalk.
‘It was clear it appears that the intent of the Russian authorities was to remove a journalist and his traveling companion. We believe there was also some KGB agents offloaded from the aircraft as well.’
Tory MP Tom Tugendhat this morning called it ‘a warlike act,’ joining the British, Irish and American governments in their condemnation. ‘This was a flight between two NATO members and between two EU members,’ the Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman told Radio 4. ‘If it’s not an act of war, it’s certainly a warlike act.’
Mr Raab, the British foreign secretary, vowed to hold Lukashenko accountable ‘for his outlandish actions’ with further sanctions and demanded the ‘immediate release of Protasevich.’
His Irish counterpart Simon Coveney was also withering, saying that Dublin – where Ryanair is headquartered – would not allow the ‘state-sponsored piracy’ to go unpunished.
‘We cannot allow this incident to pass on the basis of warnings or strong press releases,’ Coveney told RTE. ‘I think there has to be real edge to the sanctions that are applied on the back of this. This was effectively aviation piracy, state-sponsored.’
Moscow defended its ally, with foreign minister Sergei Lavrov calling Lukashenko’s action an ‘absolutely reasonable approach.’
‘A representative of the Belarusian foreign ministry… stressed the readiness of the Belarusian authorities to act on the issue in a transparent manner and to follow all international rules,’ Lavrov said during a press conference following a meeting with his Greek counterpart.
‘I think this is an absolutely reasonable approach.’
He called on the global community to ‘soberly assess the situation’.
Earlier Monday, authorities in Belarus insisted they had acted legally when they diverted the flight. They instead accused the West of making unfounded claims for political reasons.
Several European airlines including AirBaltic, Air Austria and Wizz Air were avoiding Belarusian air space today as EU leaders were set to meet in Brussels ton discuss furthers sanctions against Lukashenko.
AirBaltic said it was monitoring the situation and would avoid Belarus airspace until it ‘becomes clearer’. It added: ‘the safety and health of our passengers and employees in the main priority’.
The Foreign Affairs Committee has called for a complete flight ban on Belarusian airspace. MP Tugendhat said he wanted to see a flight ban ‘to protect our citizens from any potential repeat of this event’.
Tugendhat explained he was calling for a ban on all flights going into, or out of, Belarus, until Sunday’s hijacking was resolved.
He added a call for ‘immediate sanctions on the Lukashenko regime’, including on the Yamal-Europe oil pipeline.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said further sanctions were being considered against the Lukashenko administration and Belarus’ ambassador in London had been summoned for a dressing down.