Arrested opposition leader Protasevich says he admires Lukashenko

‘I admire President Lukashenko, he has balls of steel’ arrested opposition leader Roman Protasevich says as he appears on State TV looking battered and bruised

  • The journalist and activist appeared in tearful interview on state TV on Thursday
  • He confessed to role in anti-Lukashenko and admitted respect for the leader
  • However, his family and campaigners say interview was conducted under duress
  • Comes amid suspicions the 26-year-old has been beaten, tortured in prison 
  • Video is his third appearance since he was dragged of hijacked flight in Minsk
  • Detained after Belarus scrambled a fighter jet to divert Ryanair plane on May 23
  • EU has cut off flights to and from Belarus in sanctions over ‘scandalous hijacking

Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich, who was arrested after his plane was forced to land in Minsk, appeared on state television Thursday in a tearful interview.

In his third appearance since being detained on May 23, a bruised-looking Protasevich tearfully confessed to his role in anti-government protests in the interview which family and campaigners say was conducted under duress.

In the video, Protasevich – the co-founder and former editor of opposition Telegram channel Nexta which galvanised anti-government demonstrations – confessed to calling for protests last year and praised Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko. 

On Lukashenko, Protasevich said that ‘in many moments he acted like a man’ with balls of steel ‘despite all the pressure.’

‘There were moments where I think the decisions were wrong,’ continued Protasevich, before saying that he ‘certainly’ respects Lukashenko when asked if he does by the TV journalist conducting the interview. 

Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich, who was arrested after his plane was forced to land in Minsk, appeared on state television Thursday in a tearful interview (pictured)

In his third appearance since being detained on May 23, a bruised-looking Protasevich tearfully confessed to his role in anti-government protests in the interview which family and campaigners say was conducted under duress

At the end of the 1.5-hour interview broadcast by Belarus state-run channel ONT Thursday evening, Protasevich began crying and covered his face with his hands.

His wrists appeared to be cut or bruised as he lifted his hands to his face, and throughout the interview he only moved his right arm, leaving his left resting on his knee, leading to much speculation on social media about his treatment. 

The 26-year-old’s father, Dmitry Protasevich, said that the video was the result of ‘abuse, torture and threats.’

‘I know my son very well and I believe that he would never say such things,’ he told AFP new agency. ‘They broke him and forced him to say what was needed,’ he said, adding it pained him to watch the interview. I am very worried.’

Franak Viacorka, a senior adviser to exiled opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, on Thursday – using a different spelling of Protasevich’s name –  said: ‘It’s painful to see ‘confessions’ of Raman Pratasevich. His parents believe he was tortured. This is not Raman I know.’ 

He ‘is the hostage of the regime, and we must make all possible to release him and the other 460 political prisoners,’ he wrote on Twitter.

At the end of the 1.5-hour interview broadcast by Belarus state-run channel ONT Thursday evening, Protasevich began crying and covered his face with his hands.

On Lukashenko, Protasevich said that ‘in many moments he acted like a man’ with balls of steel ‘despite all the pressure.’

In the video, Protasevich (pictured, file photo) – the co-founder and former editor of opposition Telegram channel Nexta which galvanised anti-government demonstrations – confessed to calling for protests last year and praised Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko

The opposition has said a video confession made last month by Russian citizen Sofia Sapega, Protasevich’s girlfriend who was also detained after the forced landing, appeared coerced.

Lukashenko’s office did not immediately respond to a Reuters news agency request for comment on the accusations.

Previously, authorities have said Protasevich is an extremist who has facilitated violence. They have maintained aired television confessions by members of the opposition were made voluntarily.

Protasevich said he was giving the interview of his own volition.

‘I’m almost certain they will condemn me publicly, and rallies in support of me will come to naught,’ Protasevich said of his former associates. ‘But I don’t care what they will be saying.’

‘I immediately admitted my guilt in organising massive unauthorized actions,’ Protasevich said.

‘I criticized Alexander Grigoryevich a lot, but when I became more involved in political topics, I began to understand that he was doing the right thing and I certainly respect him,’ he said in the 90-minute video. 

In the video, Protasevich – the co-founder and former editor of opposition Telegram channel Nexta which galvanised anti-government demonstrations – confessed to calling for protests last year and praised Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko (pictured)

Ahead of the broadcast, independent rights group Viasna said that Protasevich must have been coerced into speaking by Belarusian security services because he is facing ‘unfair, but very serious accusations’.

‘Everything Protasevich will say was said under duress – at the very least psychological duress,’ Viasna head Ales Bialiatski told AFP Thursday.

‘Whatever he is saying now is pure propaganda, under which there is no truthful basis.’

Protasevich and Sapega, 23, were arrested in Minsk on May 23 after Belarus scrambled a military jet to divert the Athens-Vilnius Ryanair plane they were travelling on.

They were accused of helping to coordinate historic demonstrations that broke out following Lukashenko’s disputed re-election last August, which has been condemned as illegitimate by a number of Western countries.

Immediately after their arrest both Protasevich and Sapega appeared in ‘confession’ videos that their supporters said were also recorded under duress and are a common tactic of the regime to pressure critics.

Protasevich’s parents said at the time their son looked like he had been beaten in the video.

Pictured: People hold placards depicting Belarusian journalist and blogger, Roman Protasevich, and Ihar Losik as members of the Belarusian community gather at Old Town to meet with Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, in Warsaw, Poland, June 3

In response to the arrests the European Union banned Belarusian state carrier Belavia from operating flights to airports in the bloc and discouraged EU-based airlines from flying over the ex-Soviet country.

In response to the protests, Belarus authorities waged a brutal crackdown on the opposition and civil society, detaining and imprisoning thousands of demonstrators and pushing opposition leaders into exile. Several people died in the unrest.

Western countries and international rights groups have condemned Lukashenko over the forced landing of the aircraft and also imposed sanctions against Belarusian officials over a crackdown on protests following a contested election last year.          

Protasevich told people not to protest in an earlier video that aired on Wednesday – also on state television. Protasevich appeared relaxed but bruised, smoking as spoke about the opposition with an unidentified interrogator. 

‘These is simply no [protest] activity right now,’ the 26-year-old said in the broadcast.

‘We need to abandon those schemes…. there can’t be any such activity now… when I was in Vilnius, I said openly that street protests were not needed..

Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich who was dragged off a hijacked Ryanair flight in Minsk has told people not to protest in a new video aired on state television on Wednesday

The call comes amid renewed suspicions the 26-year-old has been beaten and tortured in prison, but the footage showed him relaxed, smoking as spoke with an interrogator

Protasevich added: ‘At the very least we have to wait for the economic situation to heat up. 

‘We must wait for the day when people will not go to protest about new elections or against violence by the security forces, but when people will take to the streets for a bowl of soup.’

Belarus has used video confessions to justify detentions and to attempt to dissuade the population from showing support for the opposition. 

The new video comes after Protasevich last appeared on May 24, telling viewers he was in good health and was being treated well. 

‘I continue cooperating with investigators and am confessing to having organised mass unrest in the city of Minsk,’ he said.

The video was widely rubbished as forced and Protasevich’s father claimed the 26-year-old had has his nose broken.  


Roman Protasevich has appeared on camera for the first time since his arrested on Sunday (left), as his father said it appears his nose is broken and that he is wearing makeup – possibly to conceal bruising on the side of his face, with marks visible on his forehead (Protasevich is pictured right in 2017, for comparison) 

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

Belarusian dog handler checks luggage from the Ryanair flight in Minsk International Airport on May 23

Ryanair flight FR4978 had been flying from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania when it was forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk amid fake reports of an IED on board. 

Authorities arrested Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, on arrival in Minsk. 

Russian national Sapega is being held in a pre-trial detention centre in Minsk. A day after her arrest Belarusian state media released a video showing her confessing to having organised ‘mass riots’ in Belarus. 

She also ‘admits’ to having edited the social media channel that has published personal information about Belarusian police officers. 

Her parents say the confession is false, and that Sapega did not attend mass anti-government rallies in Minsk last summer, and only met her boyfriend in Lithuania in the New Year. 

Belarus was rocked by strikes and weekly street protests after authorities announced that Lukashenko, who has ruled in authoritarian fashion since 1994, had secured re-election on August 9 with 80 per cent of votes. 


Roman Protasevich’s girlfriend Sofia Sapega (pictured) has been in jail in Minsk since May 23. She appeared in a video and confessed to editing a social media channel that has published personal information about Belarusian police officers

Belarus was rocked by strikes and weekly street protests after authorities announced that Lukashenko, who has ruled in authoritarian fashion since 1994, had secured re-election on August 9 with 80 per cent of votes

Flight data shows that airspace over Belarus is virtually empty after Belarus scrambled a military jet and forced a plane carrying dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his partner to land in Minsk

How flights are flying AROUND Belarus after Ryanair flight was hijacked as it crossed airspace

Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko ordered the hijacking of a Ryanair plane as it crossed Belarusian airspace so he could arrest dissident blogger Roman Protasevich and girlfriend Sofia Sapega on May 23.

Since then, the EU has directed flights around Belarus until the matter is resolved.

The move – which takes longer – is expected to burn more fuel.

Flights paths formulated by the Financial Times show just how out of the way people-carriers are forced to go. 

Amsterdam to Bangkok on May 21 vs May 24: The grey line shows the route on May 21 going through Belarus. The purple line shows the route just three days later on May 24

The EU has banned Belarusian airlines, urged EU airlines not to cross Belarusian airspace and threatened tough economic sanctions on Lukashenko’s Kremlin-backed regime. 

The British government instructed  all UK planes to cease flying over Belarus. Flight data shows that the airspace over the state is virtually empty following the incident. 

Some countries have also imposed sanctions against Belarusian officials over a crackdown on demonstrators and a presidential election last year that the opposition said was massively rigged.

On Saturday, the EU offered to give £2.8billion to Belarus if Lukashenko steps aside and the country peacefully transitions to democracy.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the ‘development funding’ is ready once ‘the democratic choice of the Belarusian people’ is respected – after elections last year which Lukashenko claimed to have won but is widely thought to have lost. 

Von der Leyen said: ‘To the people of Belarus: We see and hear your desire for change, for democracy, and for a bright future. 

‘And to the Belarusian authorities: No amount of repression, brutality or coercion will bring any legitimacy to your authoritarian regime.’

But, over the weekend Lukashenko met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and ‘agreed a loan deal’ during a yacht tour in Sochi.    

Putin is the only world leader to defend Lukashenko over the hijacking.

Russia promised Belarus a £1.06billion loan last year as part of Moscow’s efforts to stabilise its neighbour and longstanding ally. Minsk received a first installment of £352million in October.

Following talks in Sochi, the former-Soviet superpower said it will move ahead with a second £352million loan to Belarus next month.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko (left) ‘agreed a loan deal’ during a yacht tour in Sochi over the weekend

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.

He was flying back to Vilnius from Greece where he had spent time taking photographs of a visit there by Tsikhanouskaya. He had posted the pictures to social media before flying back. 

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