Belarusian opposition leaders have said a dissident journalist was coerced to appear in a video on state TV in which he wept and praised the country’s authoritarian ruler.
In the 90-minute video, Raman Pratasevich repented for his opposition activities and said he respects Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko as “a man with balls of steel”.
He said he was tired of political activism and only wants to have a family and live a normal life. Then he broke into tears, covering his face with his hands. As he did so, marks left by handcuffs were clearly visible on his wrists.
Associates of the 26-year-old reacted with outrage, accusing authorities of forcing Mr Pratasevich to confess and disavow the opposition.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate in Belarus’ presidential election in August 2020, said during a visit to Poland that Mr Pratasevich and others speaking in videos from prison “are for sure being tortured and violated”.
Her spokeswoman, Anna Krasulina, described Mr Pratasevich as a hostage.
“He made his statements under tough physical and psychological pressure and, possibly, under drugs,” Ms Krasulina told The Associated Press. “We demand the immediate release of Raman, who is used by Lukashenko’s regime as a toy and instrument to blackmail Belarus’ democratic forces.”
Mr Pratasevich was travelling from Greece to Lithuania on a Ryanair flight on May 23 when Belarusian flight controllers ordered the pilots to divert to Minsk, citing a bomb threat. No bomb was found, but Mr Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend were arrested.
Speaking in a trembling voice and looking nervous in the programme on the state-controlled ONT channel, Mr Pratasevich said opposition leaders were pondering plans for a forceful government overthrow and was feuding over how to divide funds given to them by Poland and Lithuania.
Mr Pratasevich, who ran a popular channel on the Telegram messaging app that helped organise months of demonstrations against Mr Lukashenko, also offered repentance for his actions and said he pleaded guilty to organising mass disturbances. The charges carry a 15-year prison sentence.
Mr Pratasevich said he fears he could face a death sentence on charges linked to his being part of a volunteer battalion that fought Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. He pleaded with Mr Lukashenko not to hand him over to separatists who have launched a criminal investigation against him. His colleagues say he was not involved in fighting and was covering the conflict as a journalist.
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba warned that Mr Lukashenko will “feel pain” if Belarus allows the separatists to interrogate Mr Pratasevich, adding that Kyiv will interpret that as a sign of disrespect of its territorial integrity.
Stsiapan Putsila, who co-founded the Nexta channel with Mr Pratasevich, told the AP that Mr Pratasevich is likely to have been subjected to both “psychological pressure and specially designed drugs”.
“His statements had nothing to do with reality, they are the result of unbearable torture and exploitation of his emotions,” Mr Putsila said.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya’s adviser, Franak Viachorka, described Mr Pratasevich’s TV appearance as a “public humiliation”.
“He was forced to publicly betray his views and his colleagues,” Mr Viachorka told AP. “He was forced to plead respect for Lukashenko on camera. Their goal was to humiliate, break and trample him. He’s a hostage taken in a terrorist operation of Lukashenko’s regime that hijacked the plane.”