A Belarusian opposition figure arrested after his Ryanair flight was forced to land in Minsk is seen on a state television show confessing about his role to bring down the government and describing the opposition leaders as “money launderers.” Roman Protasevich’s supporters say the video was made under duress.
(CN) — In a video aired on Belarus national television, Roman Protasevich, the blogger and opposition activist arrested in Minsk after his Ryanair flight was forced to land, speaks to his interviewer in a darkened television studio.
Protasevich sits alone under the glare and satisfied smiles of Marat Markov, an imposing man with a clean-shaven head who runs ONT TV, the state-owned station that broadcast the lengthy interview Thursday night.
With TV cameras zooming in to capture every angle of their faces, Protasevich — a 26-year-old who helped organize months of protests last year against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko through a social media platform he ran from Poland — talks and talks.
He gives the Belarusian regime all it wants to hear: He confesses that he was part of a conspiracy to bring down the government of Lukashenko, whom he describes at one point as “a man with steel balls”; he talks about the opposition leaders as skillful “money launderers”; he describes infighting and egomaniacal tendencies among the opposition ranks. He says he is talking because he wants to, not because he’s been forced to confess. Ninety minutes in — before the video closes with a black-and-white shot of Markov speaking authoritatively into the camera — Protasevich breaks down in tears and says he just wants to have a family and children.
This new footage — two shorter confession videos have come out since Protasevich’s arrest on May 23 — offers a stark window into the bizarre state of affairs in Belarus, a former Soviet country of about 10 million people sandwiched between Russia, with which it has historic links, to its east and a multitude of European Union states to its west that want to see Lukashenko forced out of the presidential palace.
After massive protests broke out following allegedly rigged presidential elections last August that extended Lukashenko’s 27-year rule, Belarus has become the stage of a power match between Russia and the EU and its ally the United States.
In this explosive atmosphere, Protasevich is now in the hands of Belarus and his fate is far from clear. He faces a potentially long prison sentence, even the death penalty. Belarus is the last European country to still carry out executions.
His supporters, including his family, are denouncing the new footage as a “torture video” made under duress and a carbon copy of the kinds of confessions that became run-of-the-mill during the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.
“I’m sure he was forced,” his father, Dmitry Protasevich, told European media. “I’m sure he was intimidated. He has been under pressure for more than a week. … This is the result of the fact that he was simply intimidated, threatened, perhaps, with the girl’s life and his life.”
Also arrested after Belarus diverted Protasevich’s Ryanair flight between Greece and Lithuania was Sofia Sapega, his Russian-born girlfriend. She too was seen in a recent video confessing.
Franak Viacorka, an adviser to the self-exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, called it was “painful” to watch the confession.
“This is not the Raman I know,” Viacorka said on Twitter, using the Belarusian spelling for Roman.
Viacorka called Protasevich a “hostage of the regime,” and he likened the show on ONT TV to Nazi propaganda. During the ONT interview, Protasevich also attacked Viacorka’s role in the opposition.
Events in Belarus are taking on an ever more surreal — and dangerous — aspect as tensions rise both inside the country and with the EU and the U.S.
On Tuesday, a 41-year-old man being tried for protesting the government stabbed himself in the neck with a pen during court proceedings. Video showed Stepan Latypov being carried out of the court building, his neck covered in bloody bandages. His supporters charge that Belarusian authorities had placed him in a “torture cell” and threatened his family. He was back in prison after treatment at a hospital.
The Belarusian government announced Monday it was largely closing its land borders and putting tight restrictions on who can leave and enter the country. The government cited the need to stop the spread of coronavirus, but many saw the move as the latest effort to clamp down on dissidents.
In recent months, the government has ruthlessly gone after people it deems a threat. Lawyers who represented opposition figures have had their licenses revoked. Nonprofit organizations have been raided, journalists arrested and more than 400 people are in jail on what human rights activists consider politically motivated charges for speaking out against the government.
The U.S. and the EU, meanwhile, are tightening sanctions on Belarus and aiming to hurt state-run businesses. In retaliation, Lukashenko on Thursday kicked out American embassy staff in Minsk and has talked about beginning passenger flights between Minsk and Crimea, the Ukrainian territory annexed by Russia in 2014. This is seen as a clear provocation to Ukraine, which has a pro-Western government that is antagonistic to both Russia and Belarus.
In another provocative move against another neighbor and foe, Poland, Belarus said it will begin prosecuting members of its ethnic Polish community who were active with the Polish Home Army during World War II, a group of resistance fighters who combatted German occupying forces. Belarusian Attorney General Andrei Schwed called its former members “fascist criminals.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.