Tearful, very nervous and with wounds on his wrists from handcuffs, Roman Protasevich , the journalist critical of Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime whose unusual arrest has shaken the global geopolitical table, starred in a dark interview broadcast on public television Thursday night Belarusian in which he confesses to having participated in the organization of anti-government protests in Belarus , and apologizes.
His family, the Belarusian opposition and several Western leaders have railed against the harrowing recording, which they have described as the video of a hostage; They claim that the 26-year-old is speaking under duress.
Protasevich, who has been detained since May 23, when the Belarusian authorities forced the civilian plane in which he was traveling to land when flying over Belarus, seems exhausted and tries to point out that he has decided to speak “voluntarily”. The disturbing images have triggered the alert again about the treatment and torture of dissidents in Belarusian prisons.
The 90-minute conversation broadcast Thursday night in prime time is Protasevich’s third appearance, following two other videos recorded in similar circumstances in which the dissident, who has not been able to communicate with his family, who lives in exile in Poland claims that it “cooperates” with the authorities in the investigation on suspicion of organizing “civil unrest”, collaborating with extremists and “inciting hatred”, charges that can cost him up to 15 years in prison.
Roman Protasevich: the journalist who became Lukashenko’s target
Shortly before his arrest, Protasevich, who was living in exile in Lithuania and who until a few months ago had directed Nexta, an opposition Telegram channel that was key during last summer’s protests for democracy and against electoral fraud, had described Lukashenko like a “dictator.”
The young man compared the man who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 27 years with the Nazi Adolf Hitler. In this last interview broadcast on the ONT chain, controlled by the State, the blogger praises him, affirms that he “without a doubt” respects him and that the authoritarian leader has “balls of steel”.
The Belarusian authorities have assured that Protasevich fought in 2014 in eastern Ukraine with a far-right battalion in the conflict with separatists supported by the Kremlin. And Lukashenko hinted this week that he could send him to the Donbas and put him in the hands of the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk or Luhansk republics. In the “interview”, the young activist breaks down in tears, says he fears a death sentence and begs Lukashenko not to hand him over to the separatists.
The images, which were recorded in a dark room and on an unspecified date, are “a propaganda video,” lamented his father, Dmitri Protasevich. “I know my son and I am sure he has been intimidated and coerced into doing so.
He has been under pressure for more than a week ”, he told the Russian television channel Dozh, where he warned that the Belarusian security forces have many elements to put pressure on the blogger; also through his girlfriend, the 23-year-old Russian student Sofia Sapega, who was flying with him from Athens to Vilnius and who was also arrested when the plane was forced to land at Minsk airport. “She could be in the next cell,” Protasevich’s father said.
Sapega also starred in his own video admitting guilt for “running” an opposition Telegram channel that disseminated private data from security officials. Videos of forced confessions are one of the favorite recipes of the Belarusian secret services (KGB).
This summer many of those arrested in the massive protests against electoral fraud were forced to record similar videos in brutal detention centers and even opposition leader Svetlana Tijanóvskaya had to make one when she was detained last August at the KGB headquarters in Minsk; when she was released, she immediately left the country. Some of those recordings have since been broadcast on pro-government Telegram channels or on state television.
The pressures to which the detainees are subjected, warn human rights organizations, are brutal. Earlier this week, activist Stiapan Latypau, who had been imprisoned for months, stabbed himself in the neck with a pen during a trial in Minsk after claiming that he had been held for 50 days in a punishment cell, in which other prisoners that they collaborated with the regime beat him and tortured him, and that the investigators had threatened to arrest his family and friends if he did not confess and admit to the crime of fraud for which he was being prosecuted; another “fabricated” case, according to civil rights organizations.
Stefan Putsila, co-founder of the Telegram channel Nexta, has no doubt that his friend Protasevich has been hard pressed to speak. “He is subjected to immense psychological pressure, including torture,” he remarks from Warsaw. He claims that the Belarusian authorities may have even used “special drugs” to force the blogger to talk about his colleagues.
“This is not the Roman I know,” said Franak Viacorka, one of Tijanóvskaya’s senior advisers. “He is hostage to the regime and we must do everything possible to free him, him and the other 460 political prisoners,” he wrote on Twitter.
The new video of the dissident journalist has unleashed the condemnation of the West. Steffen Seibert, spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, dismissed Protasevich’s confessions as “completely unworthy and implausible” and noted that the German government “condemns in the strongest terms” the blogger’s appearance on television.
“It is a shame for the station that screened it and for the Belarusian leadership,” he said. The UK Foreign Minister, Dominic Raab, also criticized the recording. “Those involved in filming, coercing and conducting the interview must be held accountable,” he wrote on Twitter. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis called the broadcast a manifestation of “state terrorism”.