A dissident journalist arrested when Belarus diverted his flight has said in a video from prison that he was set up by an unidentified associate. The footage of Roman Protasevich was part of an hour-long documentary aired late on Wednesday by the state-controlled ONT channel.
In the film, the 26-year-old is also shown saying that protests against Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko are now pointless amid a tough crackdown, and suggesting the opposition wait for a more opportune moment. The film claimed Belarusian authorities were unaware Protasevich was on board the Ryanair jet en route from Athens to Vilnius when flight controllers diverted it to Minsk on May 23 citing a bomb threat.
The EU response
No bomb was found after the landing, but Protasevich was arrested along with his Russian girlfriend. The flight’s diversion outraged the European Union, which responded by barring the Belarusian flag carrier from its skies, told European airlines to skirt Belarus and drafted new sanctions against key sectors of the Belarusian economy.
Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet nation of 9.3 million for more than a quarter of a century, has accused the West of trying to “strangle” his country with sanctions.
Belarus has been rocked by months of protests fuelled by his re-election to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that was widely seen as rigged. Lukashenko has only increased the crackdown, 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 leading critic of Lukashenko. He ran a popular channel on the Telegram messaging app that played a key role in organising the huge anti-government protests and was charged with inciting mass disturbances — accusations that carry a 15-year prison sentence.
Lukashenko last week accused him of fomenting a “bloody rebellion” and defended the flight diversion as a legitimate response to a bomb threat. The ONT documentary appeared to be intended to back that contention by claiming Belarusian authorities were unaware Protasevich was on the plane when they diverted it.
In the video, the journalist alleged that the bomb threat could have been issued by someone with whom he had a personal conflict. He said the perceived ill-wisher – who he did not name – had links with opposition-minded hackers who have attacked Belarusian official websites and issued bomb threats in the past.
When the plane was on a landing path, I realised that it’s useless to panic,
Once the plane taxied to a parking spot, he described seeing heavily armed special forces waiting. It was a dedicated Swat unit — uniforms, flak jackets and weapons,
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 seemed to be coerced.
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