Thursday, 17 Jun 2021

Televised Confession of Detained Belarus Activist Was Coerced, Family Says

MOSCOW — Straight from prison and with bruises on his wrists, Roman Protasevich, the Belarusian opposition activist arrested last month, appeared on state television on Thursday and confessed to having organized antigovernment protests — an interview that his family and supporters said had been made under duress.

A tearful Mr. Protasevich appeared anxious and exhausted in the interview, which was conducted by the head of a Belarusian state television station. He said he “undoubtedly” respected the country’s strongman leader, Aleskandr G. Lukashenko, before lavishing praise on him.

Just last month, Mr. Protasevich described the leader as “a dictator” and compared him to Hitler.

Mr. Protasevich, the former editor of NEXTA, an opposition Telegram channel, has been held for nearly two weeks in Belarusian prisons after the commercial flight he was traveling on was forced to land in Minsk.

Mr. Lukashenko scrambled a fighter jet to intercept the flight — a move that the international community and leaders across Europe condemned — and Mr. Protasevich and his girlfriend were spirited away by security forces upon landing.

European leaders also condemned Mr. Protasevich’s interview. A spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany called the confession “completely unworthy and implausible,” and Britain’s foreign minister, Dominic Raab, said on Twitter that “those involved in the filming, coercion and direction of the interview must be held accountable.”

Mr. Protasevich also said in the interview he had organizing mass unauthorized rallies, a charge that carries up to three years in prison. He said that he had voluntarily decided to give the interview, and that no makeup had been applied to hide any traces of torture.

His apparent confession, which some observers likened to Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s, described the Belarusian opposition as worms living luxurious lifestyles in Lithuania and Poland on those countries’ payroll. He also described his opposition colleagues as accomplices in his crimes and provided specific names.

Mr. Protasevich’s turnaround is not unusual in Mr. Lukashenko’s Belarus. Several opposition activists and media figures have made similar abrupt turns in their public statements after time spent in Belarusian prisons. Yuri Voskresensky, a former political prisoner, described his own detention as “hell.”

Speaking with TV Rain, an independent Russian television station, Mr. Protasevich’s father, Dmitri Protasevich, called the interview “a propaganda video.”

“It is very hard for him to say these things, and I am sure he was coerced and intimidated to do so,” he said. “He has been under pressure for more than a week.”

Dmitri Protasevich said that the Belarusian law enforcement could also apply pressure on his son through his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who is also being held in a prison run by the K.G.B., the domestic security service.

“She might be held in the cell next to him,” he said.

The conditions inside such prisons are bleak, former detainees say. Yegor Dudnikov, a Russian citizen, was detained by the Belarusian law enforcement in early May and has since been held in the K.G.B. prison. In a letter to his lawyer, he described having been subjected to beatings and torture in order to prompt a confession.

Mr. Dudnikov, who said he was a technical specialist who helped opposition activists with videos, described having been coerced to make a statement to the state-run television channel that interviewed Mr. Protasevich.

“On May 25, they brought me to a room where they gave me answers already prepared by the television crew,” he said in a letter published by Novaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper. “They gave me time to learn them by heart — on May 28, television people came and made the recording.”

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