Wednesday. 17.04.2024

Fears grew on Tuesday that the Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, who was detained in Minsk after his plane was forcibly rerouted, has been subject to torture while in custody.

Natalia Protasevich, the mother of the journalist, said there was clear evidence that her son had been subject to violence, referring to footage released a day earlier from the Minsk pre-trial detention centre where he is being held.

He was arrested on Sunday after Belarusian authorities alerted the crew of his Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius of a possible security threat and directed it to land at an airport near Minsk.

President Alexander Lukashenko also ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to be scrambled to accompany the plane, according to the state news agency.

Authorities in Minsk then detained Protasevich and his girlfriend, who was also on board.

"I am not a surgeon, but it is certain that they hit his nose and may have broken it," Protasevich's mother said of the video that was circulated by the authorities.

She also said her son's left cheek was swollen and sagging. "Even under the make-up, you can see a yellowish tinge - probably bruises were covered with powder."

She said she also saw signs of strangulation on the neck of her son. "From the looks of it, they choked him to beat evidence out of him."

In the video, Protasevich, 26, said he was being treated in accordance with the law and confessed to having organized riots.

Her son was forced to make the statement, Protasevich said. "He either read it off the page or was forced to memorize it."

Her son is a very strong person, said Protasevich, who lives with her husband in exile in Poland. However, she said she feared the authorities might abuse his girlfriend in order to break her son.

Her fears were echoed by opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who said the international community must act in concert to prevent a repeat of Belarus' actions at the weekend.

Now is the time to discuss joint steps "to bring the perpetrators to justice," Tikhanovskaya, who lives in exile in Lithuania, wrote on the Telegram messaging app.

US investigation

The US should launch an investigation into the flight's forced landing and Protasevich's detention, she said after a phone call with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

"All of this is a result of the regime's impunity and the lack of a decisive response from the international community," she added.

On Tuesday, Russian newspaper RBK said Sofia Sapega, Protasevich's girlfriend, had been remanded in custody for two months, citing a lawyer.

In a video circulated by Belarusian state media, 23-year-old Sapega said she had also worked as an editor of an opposition Telegram channel and disseminated information about Belarusian security forces.

Belarusian blogger Stepan Putilo, the founder of the Nexta portal on Telegram along with Protasevich, told a Polish newspaper that he has been receiving death threats since Protasevich's arrest.

"They write to me that it's our turn next, that we won't be kidnapped to Belarus but shot in Warsaw," he told the Rzeczpospolita.

Nexta, the Belarusian opposition's main source of information during massive protests against long-time ruler Lukashenko, is based in Warsaw. Protasevich left Nexta at the end of 2020.

Sanctions agreed

On Monday, the EU agreed to a package of sanctions, including the sealing-off of Belarusian airspace and a landing ban on its airlines in response to the forced landing of the plane.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the sanctions.

"This is a state hijacking and demonstrates how the regime in Minsk attacks basic democratic rights and cracks down on freedom of expression and independent media," he said, adding that an urgent international investigation was needed.

Lufthansa, Air France and Finnair are the latest airlines to announce that they would be avoiding flying over Belarus for the time being.

Some 339 flights pass over Belarus per day to and from Europe, according to aviation authority Eurocontrol.

Belarus' state-owned airline said on Tuesday that it had suspended flights to London and Paris until the end of October in response to a landing ban by those countries, saying it regretted the situation.

Lukashenko was already under international pressure after disputed elections last year and a violent clampdown on widespread protests.

Fears grow that detained Belarusian journalist subject to torture