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'Spoken after torture': Belarus opposition slams journalist's video confession

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Roman Pratasevich speaks in a video from a detention center in Minsk, Belarus
Roman Pratasevich speaks in a video from a detention center in Minsk, Belarus   -   Copyright  AP/Belarus Government press office
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The family and associates of a journalist arrested in Belarus after authorities diverted a Ryanair passenger plane have denounced a video aired on state TV in which he declared respect for authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko.

Roman Protasevich was arrested after the flight from from Greece to Lithuania was diverted while in Belarusian airspace, in a move that caused widespread international outrage.

In footage that was part of an hour-long documentary aired on Wednesday on the ONT channel, the 26-year-old is shown saying he had been involved in a plot to seize power in Belarus and was set up by an unidentified associate.

He is also shown saying protests against Lukashenko are now pointless following a tough crackdown and suggests the opposition should wait for a more opportune moment.

His father, Dmitri Protasevich, told AFP that the televised confession was the result of "violence, torture and threats".

"I know my son very well and I'm convinced he would never say such things," he said.

On Friday, Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya also claimed the interview had been produced "under stress".

"All these type of videos are produced under stress. We mustn't even pay attention to these words, because they are spoken after torture... The aim of political prisoners is to survive," she said during a visit to Poland.

A few hours before the broadcast, the human rights NGO Viasna denounced comments obtained "under threats".

"Everything that (Roman) Protasevich will say will have been obtained after threats, psychological at least, and under the threat of unjust but very serious accusations he is subjected to," Viasna's director Ales Beliatski told AFP.

The journalist, a critic of the Lukashenko's regime, was arrested on 23 May in Minsk along with his girlfriend.

In the film aired on Wednesday, Protasevich said he had been in contact with conspirators who planned a forceful seizure of power in Belarus and that he was a liaison between them and opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanuskaya, who fled to Lithuania after losing the election to Lukashenko.

He also said that the Belarusian authorities were unaware that Protasevich was on board the Ryanair flight when flight controllers diverted it to Minsk citing a bomb threat.

No bomb was found after the landing, but Protasevich was arrested along with his Russian girlfriend.

The European Union responded to the incident by barring the Belarusian flag carrier from its skies, told European carriers to avoid Belarusian airspace, and drafted new sanctions against key sectors of the Belarusian economy.

Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet nation of 9.3 million with an iron fist for more than 26 years, has accused the West of trying to “strangle” his country with sanctions.

Belarus has been rocked by months of protests following his landslide reelection for a sixth straight term - an election rejected as fixed by many international observers and opposition within the country.

More than 35,000 people have been arrested since the protests began, with claims of widespread torture and mistreatment of prisoners.

Protasevich, who left Belarus in 2019, ran a widely popular channel on the Telegram messaging app that played a key role in helping organise the huge anti-government protests.

He was charged with inciting mass disturbances - accusations that carry a 15-year prison sentence.

Lukashenko last week accused Protasevich of fomenting a “bloody rebellion” and defended the Ryanair flight diversion as a legitimate response to the bomb threat.

The ONT documentary appeared intended to back that contention by claiming that the Belarusian authorities were unaware that 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 charged that the perceived ill-wisher whom he didn't name had links with opposition-minded hackers who have attacked Belarusian official websites and issued bomb threats in the past.

Protasevich's remarks included in the documentary didn't explain what kind of personal conflict the journalist had with the alleged person.

“When the plane was on a landing path, I realised that it's useless to panic,” Protasevich said. 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,” he said.

A day after his arrest, Protasevich already 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.