KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A dissident journalist who was arrested after his plane was diverted to Belarus said in a video from prison that protests against the country’s authoritarian leader had fizzled and the opposition should wait for a better moment to revive demonstrations. It was Raman Pratasevich’s second such appearance that allies dismissed as having been coerced.
In footage aired late Wednesday on Belarusian state TV during an hour-long program, the 26-year-old Pratasevich also said that he had been set up by an unidentified associate.
The presenter of the broadcast on the ONT channel claimed that the Belarusian authorities were unaware that Pratasevich was on board a Ryanair jet en route from Greece to Lithuania when flight controllers diverted it to the Belarusian capital of Minsk on May 23, citing a bomb threat. No bomb was found after the landing, but Pratasevich was arrested along with his Russian girlfriend.
Outraged European Union leaders called the flight’s diversion an act of piracy and responded by barring the Belarusian flag carrier from its skies, telling European airlines to skirt Belarus and drafting new bruising sanctions against the country.
Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet nation of 9.3 million with an iron fist for more than a quarter-century, has accused the West of trying to “strangle” his country with sanctions.
The footage featuring Pratasevich, who left Belarus in 2019 and has become a top foe of Lukashenko, marked his second appearance on state TV. In his first, he spoke rapidly and in a monotone and said he was confessing to staging mass disturbances. His parents, who now live in Poland, said the confession seemed to be coerced and that makeup appeared to be covering up bruising on his face.
A top associate said Wednesday that Pratasevich was again clearly speaking under duress in the newly released video.
In it, Pratasevich acknowledged that the protests fueled by Lukashenko’s reelection to a sixth term in an August vote that was widely seen as rigged have died down. Those demonstrations have faced a brutal crackdown by Lukashenko, with more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten.
“We need to wait until the economic situation worsens … and people take to the street for a bowl of soup, to put it bluntly,” he said.
Lukashenko has defended the Ryanair flight diversion as a legitimate response to the bomb threat, and the program aired Wednesday appeared designed to back the contention that the Belarusian authorities were unaware that Pratasevich was aboard the diverted plane.
In the video, Pratasevich described seeing heavily armed special forces waiting as the plane taxied to a parking spot.
“It was a dedicated SWAT unit — uniforms, flak jackets and weapons,” he said.
The journalist explained that he put a notice about his travel plans in a chat with associates 40 minutes before his departure. He alleged that the bomb threat could have been issued by someone with whom he had a personal conflict, but didn’t elaborate.
Pratasevich charged that the person — whom he didn’t name — had links with opposition-minded hackers who have attacked Belarusian official websites and issued bomb threats in the past.
“The first thing I thought was that I have been set up,” he said. “When the plane was on a landing path, I realized that it’s useless to panic.”
Pratasevich also noted that some time before the flight he had a rift with Franak Viachorka, an adviser to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate in the August presidential election.
Asked about the video, Viachorka told The Associated Press that Pratasevich now is “a hostage under pressure” and insisted they have maintained friendly ties.
In the footage, Pratasevich said he tried to stay away from his girlfriend after the landing, hoping that the authorities wouldn’t arrest her. Sofia Sapega didn’t feature in the new TV program, but she was shown in a video from prison last week, confessing to running a channel that revealed personal data about Belarusian security officers.
Pratasevich, who left Belarus in 2019, ran a widely popular channel on the Telegram messaging app that played a key role in helping organize the huge anti-government protests and has been charged with inciting mass disturbances — accusations that carry a 15-year prison sentence.
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