Belarusian opposition leaders and rights groups on Friday called on the United States and its Western allies to put more pressure on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, as they denounced an appearance by a detained journalist in state television as “ruthless propaganda”.
Roman Protasevich, 26, said he played a role in the anti-government protests in a 90-minute interview that aired Thursday night on state broadcaster ONT.
Seeming uncomfortable as he was toasted by a lone presenter, Protasevich, a former editor of an anti-government broadcaster on the Telegram secure messaging app known as Nexta – “someone” in Belarusian – said he was giving the interview of his own free will.
Protasevich also went back to his earlier criticisms of Lukashenko, saying he respected the ruler in power for 27 years.
Sometimes in tears, he said he plotted to overthrow Lukashenko by staging mass protests and that other opposition activists should call off their protests.
Belarusian activists, many of whom live in exile, said Protasevich appeared to have been compelled to appear and pointed to signs of injuries on his hands.
“It was not an interview. It was an interrogation,” Franak Viacorka, senior adviser to exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, told NBC News on Friday.
“The methods date back to Stalin’s time,” he said, adding: “Unfortunately, we cannot rule out that he was tortured, physically and psychologically. We saw the signs of beatings and torture. possible. His parents are sure he was pressured into saying what he said. “
NBC News has not been able to verify these claims, but authorities in the eastern European country have been repeatedly accused of torture and ill-treatment by rights groups like Amnesty International and the protesters themselves after mass protests broke out after the contested presidential election last August.
The Belarusian embassy in London did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the allegations regarding Protasevich’s interview and the allegations of violence against protesters, which the country’s authorities have previously denied.
Protasevich made headlines around the world in May when an airliner he was traveling on was abruptly hijacked by a fighter jet and forced to land in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. Belarusian authorities forced the plane to land by reporting what turned out to be a false bomb threat.
He was later arrested along with his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. Both have since appeared in videos, which have been criticized by relatives as scripted.
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Tanya Lokshina, associate director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch, called Protasevich’s latest interview “absolutely scandalous” and called it “ruthless propaganda.”
The detention and forced landing of the plane sparked anger among world leaders. As a result, the United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on a handful of Belarusian businesses and individuals.
“Actions have consequences” State Secretary Antony Blinken wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
“Due to the Lukashenka regime’s continued disregard for human rights, the United States has ended the authorization of business transactions with nine Belarusian state-owned enterprises. The escalation of the regime’s repressive tactics will not remain. not unanswered, “he added, using an alternative spelling for Lukashenko.
European ambassadors also adopted a plan on Friday to ban Belarusian carriers from flying over EU territory or landing at EU airports, Reuters reported.
Tsikhanouskaya, who challenged Lukashenko in last year’s election before being forced to flee the country, called for more pressure from the United States and its allies.
“The pressure is greater when these countries act together,” she told Reuters on Friday. “They must act together to make their voices stronger.”
Human Rights Watch’s Lokshina also called for tougher action against neighboring Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has defended Lukashenko. The couple met in the Black Sea resort of Sochi shortly after Protasevich’s plane was grounded and Putin described Western criticism of the incident as “an explosion of emotion”.
“It’s pretty obvious that the reason Lukashenko is still able to get away with this is because of the support he receives from Moscow, including financial backing,” Lokshina told NBC News.
However, for Jason Bush, senior analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, the link between Russia and Belarus has been somewhat exaggerated.
While Putin is due to meet President Joe Biden at a high-profile summit in Switzerland this month, Bush said the Protasevich affair would likely be seen as a bad time for Moscow.
“This incident is kind of a distraction and an inconvenience,” said Bush. “It’s something they could do without.”