Arrested Belarus dissident weeps in interview on state TV

AP General

FILE – In this image released Monday, May 24, 2021, by Belarus Government press office, dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich speaks in a video from a detention center in Minsk, Belarus after he was arrested when Belarus diverted his flight. In an hour-long documentary aired late Wednesday June 2, 2021, by the Belarus state-controlled ONT channel, Pratasevich alleged that he has been set up by an unidentified associate. (Belarus Government press office via AP, File)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The dissident Belarusian journalist and opposition activist who was arrested after his airline flight was diverted to Minsk wept Thursday in an interview on state television, saying he was fully cooperating with investigators and declaring that he respects the authoritarian president he opposed for years.

The broadcast was the second appearance in two days by 26-year-old Raman Pratasevich, whose arrest on May 23 was denounced in the West. By showing him on TV as cowed and repentant, Belarus could aim to counter that criticism.

Pratasevich was a founder of a messaging app channel that was a key information conduit for opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko, whose election to a sixth term last year set off months of protests, many of them attracting 100,000 people or more.

Pratasevich was arrested after his flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, was diverted following an alleged bomb threat. Western countries say the move amounted to air piracy by Belarus.

At the end of the 90-minute interview, in which Pratasevich sat on a stark black set, he said, “I am cooperating absolutely fully and openly … and live an ordinary, calm life, have a family, children, stop running away from something.”

He then covered his face with his hands and wept.

Lukashenko has suppressed opposition and independent news media since taking power in the former Soviet republic in 1994. He cracked down on the wave of protests. Some 35,000 people were detained by police and many of them were beaten.

“In many moments, (Lukashenko) acted like a man with balls of steel,” Pratsevich said. Asked by the interviewer if he respects Lukashenko, Pratasevich said “certainly.”

Pratsevich, who fled Belarus in 2019, said he had been in contact with conspirators who planned a forceful seizure of power in Belarus and that he was a liaison between them and opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanuskaya, who fled to Lithuania after losing the election to Lukashenko.

Russia in April arrested two Belarusians who it said were plotting to overthrow Lukashenko.

Pratasevich said that “most likely, there are still several sleeper cells” of overthrow plotters in Belarus.

In footage broadcast Wednesday on state TV, Pratasevich said demonstrations against Lukashenko had fizzled and the opposition should wait for a better moment to revive them. He also said that he had been set up by an unidentified associate.

The presenter of the broadcast on the ONT channel claimed the Belarusian authorities were unaware that Pratasevich was aboard the Ryanair jet that was diverted.

Outraged European Union leaders responded to the flight diversion by barring the Belarusian flag carrier Belavia from the bloc’s airports and airspace and telling European airlines to skirt Belarus. They also drafted bruising new measures against the country’s top industrial enterprises, doubling down on sanctions previously introduced by the U.S. and the EU.

Lukashenko has accused the West of trying to “strangle” his country with sanctions.

On Thursday, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry announced cuts of U.S. diplomatic personnel, the tightening of travel rules for Americans and other restrictions in retaliation to the U.S. sanctions against Belarusian companies.

“Now we need to abandon … the street activity we had before, those formats in which we worked,” Pratasevich said in the Wednesday show. “Because there is simply no such activity now, and there can’t be any now.”

He said the opposition should wait for an economic downturn to mount a new challenge.

“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.

He 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 said he disclosed 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 he did not elaborate.

Pratasevich alleged that the person — whom he did not identify — had links with opposition-minded hackers who have attacked official Belarusian 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.”

Some time before the flight, Pratasevich said, he had a rift with Franak Viachorka, an adviser to Tsikhanouskaya.

Asked about the Wednesday video, Viachorka told The Associated Press that Pratasevich is now “a hostage under pressure” and insisted they have friendly ties.

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Associated Press Writer Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

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