Detained journalist Roman Protasevich has again appeared on Belarusian state media, to the concern of government critics who fear the young dissident is being forced to address the nation under duress.
The 26-year-old told Belarusian state TV channel ONT on Thursday that he has “pleaded guilty” to organizing large-scale “unsanctioned protests” following the country’s disputed elections last August.
“I openly admit that I was one of the people who published calls to take to the streets on (August) ninth. As soon as I was presented with the documents and charged, I pleaded guilty immediately, under article 342 of the (Belarusian) Criminal Code, that’s the organization of large-scale unsanctioned protests,” Protasevich said during an interview on the show “Nothing Personal.”
Protasevich was arrested on May 23 after his Ryanair flight was grounded in Minsk, sparking outrage from Western governments. Critics of the government of longtime President Alexander Lukashenko believe Protasevich’s media appearances while in state custody are done under duress.
Protasevich is a “hostage of the regime,” tweeted Franak Viačorka, adviser to exiled Belarusian opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, on Thursday.
“It’s painful to see ‘confessions’ of Raman Pratasevich. His parents believe he was tortured. This is not Raman I know. This man on Goebbels’ TV is the hostage of the regime, and we must make all possible to release him and the other 460 political prisoners,” Viačorka wrote, using the Belarusian spelling of his name.
Since his arrest, Protasevich has appeared multiple times in state-controlled or pro-government media. In one video posted to a pro-government social media channel, he says he “confessed” to “organizing mass riots” in Minsk – an admission his family and supporters believe was forced.
Protasevich was also featured in an ONT “investigative documentary” about the Ryanair flight incident, earlier this week. The documentary repeats a claim from Belarusian authorities that they didn’t know Protasevich was onboard the plane when they diverted it.
Protasevich is well-known as a fierce critic of Lukashenko’s government. He was involved in demonstrations against the regime as a teenager and was later expelled from the journalism program at Belarusian State University. He was always on the front lines of protests, according to fellow activists.
NEXTA, the Telegram channel that Protasevich co-founded in 2015, found popularity in providing information about violent government crackdowns on election-related protests. After most vocal activists had been detained or exiled, the channel became a reliable source of verified information for protesters to coordinate their moves.
The conciliatory tone of Protasevich’s Thursday’s interview may ring all the more strangely to fellow activists.
At one point, Protasevich tells the interviewer that he respects the President’s refusal to bend to public criticism. “I realized that much of what Alexander Grigoryevich (Lukashenko) was criticized for was an attempt to pressure him. And in many ways he acted like a man with balls of steel despite the pressure,” he said.
Protasevich also breaks down before the camera, crying as he says he never wants to get involved in politics again.
“I have rethought a lot of things for myself. I never want to get involved in politics anymore, in any dirty games and showdowns again. I want to hope that I can correct everything and live an ordinary peaceful life, to have a family, children, stop running away from something,” he said.