WARSAW – The Belarusian opposition said Friday a dissident journalist was coerced to appear in a video on state TV in which he wept and praised the country's authoritarian ruler, a broadcast sharply criticized by Western officials.
In the 90-minute video broadcast Thursday night, 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 Pratasevich to confess and disavow the opposition.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate in Belarus’ presidential election in August 2020, said she would urge the U.S. and the EU to pressure Belarus to release him.
“Raman is a hostage,” she told The Associated Press. “Lukashenko hijacked a passenger plane in order to capture him and subject him to that moral and physical humiliation.”
Tsikhanouskaya said earlier during a visit to Poland that Pratasevich and others speaking in videos from prison "are for sure being tortured and violated.”
Her spokeswoman, Anna Krasulina, said Pratasevich "made his statements under tough physical and psychological pressure and, possibly, under drugs.”
“We demand the immediate release of Raman, who is used by Lukashenko’s regime as a toy and instrument to blackmail Belarus’ democratic forces," Krasulina told the AP. “Lukashenko is an international terrorist who must be stopped.”
Pratasevich was traveling from Greece to Lithuania aboard 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 Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend were arrested.
Speaking in a trembling voice and looking nervous in the program on the state-controlled ONT channel, 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.
Pratasevich, who ran a popular channel on the Telegram messaging app that helped organize months of demonstrations against Lukashenko, also offered repentance for his action and said he pleaded guilty to organizing mass disturbances. The charges carry a 15-year prison sentence.
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 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 Lukashenko will “feel pain” if Belarus allows the separatists to interrogate 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 Pratasevich, told the AP that Pratasevich likely had 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,” Putsila said.
Tsikhanouskaya's adviser, Franak Viachorka, described Pratasevich's TV appearance as a “public humiliation.”
“He was forced to publicly betray his views and his colleagues,” 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.”
Belarus was rocked by months of protests triggered by Lukashenko's reelection to a sixth term in an August vote that was widely seen as fraudulent. He responded to opposition demands to step down with fierce repression. More than 35,000 people have been arrested and thousands beaten, and opposition leaders have been either jailed or forced to leave the country.
The program aired Thursday night marked Pratasevich's third appearance on state TV since the May 23 flight diversion and arrest. In a brief video a day later, he confessed to staging mass disturbances. In other remarks shown Wednesday, he said demonstrations against Lukashenko had fizzled and the opposition should wait for a better moment to revive them. He also said he had been set up by an unidentified associate.
Outraged European Union leaders responded May 24 to the flight's diversion by barring Belarusian flag carrier from EU airspace and airports and directing European carriers to avoid Belarus' airspace. The 27-nation bloc formalized the ban Friday, saying member countries will “be required to deny permission to land in, take off from or overfly their territories to any aircraft operated by Belarusian air carriers, including as a marketing carrier.”
EU leaders also denounced the Pratasevich video. In Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said the German government “condemns in the strongest terms” his TV appearance and dismissed his confessions as “completely unworthy and implausible.”
"This is a disgrace for the broadcaster that screened it and for the Belarusian leadership,” Seibert said in Berlin.
Speaking after a meeting of top diplomats of Denmark and the Baltic nations in Copenhagen, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis called the broadcast a manifestation of “state terrorism.”
U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted that Pratasevich “was clearly under duress,” adding that “the persecution of those defending human rights and media freedom in Belarus must stop.”
“Those involved in the filming, coercion and direction of the interview must be held accountable,” he said.
In stark contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered strong support Friday for Belarus, casting the angry Western response to the flight's diversion as a manifestation of double standards. He pointed to a 2013 incident in which a private plane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales landed in Vienna after several European nations had refused to let it cross their airspace, purportedly over speculation that Edward Snowden, who leaked classified U.S. government information, was aboard.
Putin said the Western reaction has been driven by a desire to influence developments there, adding that “they shouldn't meddle in domestic affairs” of Belarus.
He also derided allegations by some in the West that Russia could have been involved in the flight’s diversion.
“NATO is in danger if NATO's leadership makes such statements,” Putin snapped. “It reveals a complete lack of understanding of the procedures.”
Asked by a moderator if Russia would act like Belarus and divert an international flight if it knew that a person on its wanted list was on board, Putin smirked and said: “I won't tell you.”
Karmanau reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed.