Belarusian regime showcases Protasevich at press conference on air incident in which he was detained
The journalist says he is well and ready to take responsibility for his crimes
SabadellBelarusian journalist Roman Protasevich, who was arrested after the plane in which he was flying was forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk, has appeared by surprise on Monday at a press conference called by the government of Aleksandr Lukashenko to give explanations about the incident. Protasevich, who has been imprisoned for three weeks, appeared alongside four government representatives (two of whom were in uniform) and said he is ready to take responsibility for the crimes he says he committed.
"I understand the damage I have done not only to the state but also to the country. Now I want to do everything in my power to correct this situation", he said, according to Reuters. Protasévich, 26, also said that he had not been forced to cooperate with the authorities and that, despite his opposition to Lukashenko, he respects the President. These words are in line with those he had made in previous appearances since his arrest and, as the opposition denounces, have a clear appearance of having been made under duress.
"Let's not forget: [Protasevich] is a hostage. And the regime is using him as a trophy", Franak Viačorka, a top advisor to exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, said on Twitter. This is not a press conference but a scene from Kafka or Orwell. BBC journalist Jonah Fisher explained in a tweet that he had left the press conference when he saw that Protasevich would appear: "I will not participate because [Protasévich] is clearly here under duress", he said. Protasevich said he was participating in the event voluntarily.
"No one hit me"
Roman Protasévich was arrested along with his partner, Sofia Sapega, on the 23rd of March, when the Ryanair plane on which he was flying from Athens to Vilnius (the capital of Lithuania, where he lived in exile) was forced off course while crossing Belarusian airspace and had to land in Minsk following an alleged bomb threat that turned out to be false. The two have since been detained and are suspected of having been tortured: in a video released the day after the arrest, Protasevich showed injuries on his face. At a press conference on Monday, the opposition leader denied that he had been tortured and added: "I'm fine, I feel fine. No one hit me, no one touched me".
Ten days ago, Protasevich had already participated in a Belarusian television program in which he showed respect for Lukashenko and confessed, in tears, that he had organised protests against the government and "mass riots", charges that could lead to a prison sentence of up to 15 years. In the footage, the journalist (former head of Telegram's Nexta channel, Belarus' leading independent media outlet) was shown with injuries to his wrists, apparently caused by handcuffs.
At the hearing on Monday, the chairman of the Belarusian investigative committee, Dmitri Gora, also explained that Sapega had been formally charged with "instigating discord and social enmity", an offence punishable by between five and 12 years in prison. In a video posted shortly after her arrest, Protasevich's partner, 23, confessed, under likely duress, that she was responsible for a Telegram channel that disseminated "personal information about law enforcement officials".
Regime defends itself
During the press conference, called by the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, the head of the air force, Igor Golub, denied that there had been "any interception, forced diversion or forced landing" of the Ryanair plane. Lukashenko had already argued at the time that the military plane that escorted the aircraft did not have the mission of forcing it to land in Minsk, but accompanied it to assist it in the emergency situation represented by the alleged bomb threat.
This incident led to an immediate reaction from the European Union. It banned the Belarusian airline Belavia from entering EU airspace and urged airlines of EU countries to stop flying over Belarusian territory.