Belarusian journalist in prison video after flight diversion

Belarusian journalist in prison video after flight diversion

KYIV, Ukraine — A dissident journalist arrested when Belarus diverted his flight said in a video from prison that he has been set up by an unidentified associate.

The footage of Raman Pratasevich was part of an hour-long TV program aired late Wednesday by the state-controlled ONT channel. In the film, the 26-year-old Pratasevich is also shown saying that protests against Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko are now pointless amid a tough crackdown and suggesting that the opposition wait for a more opportune moment.

The film claimed that the Belarusian authorities were unaware that Pratasevich was on board the Ryanair jet en route from Athens to Vilnius when flight controllers diverted it to Minsk on May 23 citing a bomb threat.

No bomb was found after the landing, but Pratasevich was arrested along with his Russian girlfriend. The flight’s diversion outraged the European Union, which responded by barring the Belarusian flag carrier from its skies, told European carriers to skirt Belarus and drafted new bruising 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 a quarter-century, has accused the West of trying to “strangle” his country with sanctions.

Belarus has been rocked by months of protests fueled by his reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that was widely seen as rigged. Lukashenko has only increased the crackdown, and more than 35,000 people have been arrested since the protests began, with thousands beaten.

Pratasevich, who left Belarus in 2019, has become a top foe of Lukashenko. He ran a widely popular channel on the Telegram messaging app that played a key role in helping organize the huge anti-government protests and was charged with inciting mass disturbances — accusations that carry a 15-year prison sentence.

Lukashenko last week accused Pratasevich of fomenting a “bloody rebellion.”

Speaking in the ONT film, Pratasevich acknowledged that the protests have fizzled and argued that the opposition should wait until economic problems foment broad public discontent.

“We need to wait until the economic situation worsens … and people take to the street for a mug of soup, to put it bluntly,” he said.

Lukashenko has defended the Ryanair flight diversion as a legitimate response to the bomb threat. The ONT program appeared designed to back that contention by claiming that the Belarusian authorities were unaware that Pratasevich was on the plane when they diverted it.

In the video, the journalist said he put a notice about his travel plans on a chat with associates 40 minutes before his departure and 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.

“The first thing I thought was that I have been set up,” Pratasevich said.

Pratasevich’s remarks in the program didn’t explain what kind of personal conflict the journalist had with the alleged person.

“When the plane was on a landing path, I realized that it’s useless to panic,” Pratasevich 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, Pratasevich 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.

In the ONT film, Pratasevich said he tried to stay away from his girlfriend after the landing, hoping that the authorities wouldn’t arrest her. Sofia Sapega didn’t feature in the new TV program but she was shown in a video from prison last week, confessing to running a channel that revealed personal data about Belarus’ security officers.

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