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EU leaders say Protasevich interview held 'under duress', as Belarus airlines banned from EU airports

Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said: “All such videos are shot under pressure.”

EUROPEAN LEADERS HAVE lined up to condemn an interview shown on Belarusian state television with a dissident journalist who was arrested after his plane was diverted to Minsk, saying he was only speaking “under duress”.

Germany condemned the interview with Roman Protasevich as a “disgrace”, while British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said it was “disturbing”.

Speaking during a visit to Warsaw, Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said: “All such videos are shot under pressure.”

“We should not believe any of the words of these people, including Roman Protasevich,” said Tikhanovskaya, who ran against Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko in an election last year.

“They are done after torture,” she said.

Protasevich was arrested on 23 May along with his girlfriend Sofia Sapega when their Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was diverted, under the pretense of a bomb scare, and escorted by a Belarusian fighter jet to land.

The interview with Protasevich, the co-founder and former editor of opposition Telegram channel Nexta which galvanised anti-government demonstrations, was broadcast yesterday.

Looking uncomfortable in the video, Protasevich said he had called for protests last year and praised Lukashenko.  At the end of the 1.5-hour interview broadcast by Belarus state-run channel ONT, Protasevich began crying and covered his face with his hands.

Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia director, said in a statement that Protasevich had “visible wounds” on his wrists.

She said the interview showed Protasevich to be “under intolerable psychological pressure” and constituted “ill-treatment”. “It was a televised coercion,” she said.

It comes as the European Union banned flights of Belarusian airlines in its airspace and their use of its airports.

EU headquarters said 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 states have been furious since Belarus last month forced a Ryanair flight crossing its airspace to land in Minsk on the pretext of a bomb threat in order to arrest an opposition activist.

2.60176402 Raman Pratasevich, left, during his interview with Belarusian journalist Marat Markau (ONT channel via AP) Source: PA Images

Protasevich and Sapega are accused of helping to coordinate historic demonstrations that broke out following Lukashenko’s disputed re-election last August.

In response to the protests, Belarus authorities waged a brutal crackdown on the opposition and civil society, detaining and imprisoning thousands of demonstrators and pushing opposition leaders into exile. Several people died in the unrest.

The charges against Protasevich could land him in prison for 15 years.

Russian President Vladimir Putin – a key supporter of Lukashenko – meanwhile denied any Russian involvement in Protasevich’s arrest.

“I don’t even want to look into this, this has nothing to do with us,” he said, speaking today at the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum.

‘Contempt for democracy’

In Germany, government spokesman Steffen Seibert said that Protasevich’s supposed confession was “absolutely disgraceful and implausible”.

He accused Belarusian authorities of “mentally and possibly physically” pressuring him to speak.

“That is a disgrace for the broadcaster showing (the interview) and for the Belarusian leadership which is once again showing its contempt for democracy and, it must be said, for humanity,” Seibert said.

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2.60176202 Source: PA Images

‘Political interference’

Immediately after their arrest, both Protasevich and Sapega appeared in “confession” videos that their supporters said were also recorded under duress and are a common tactic of the regime to pressure critics.

Protasevich’s parents said at the time their son looked like he had been beaten in the video.

In response to the arrests, the European Union banned Belarusian state carrier Belavia from operating flights to airports in the bloc and discouraged EU-based airlines from flying over the ex-Soviet country.

But the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a leading airline association, criticised the EU ban on flying in Belarusian airspace, saying that aviation “must not suffer from political interference”.

“Two wrongs do not make a right. Politics should never interfere with the safe operation of aircraft and politicians should never use aviation safety as a cover to pursue political or diplomatic agendas,” IATA chief Willie Walsh said in a statement.

 © AFP 2021

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