He faces more than a decade in a grisly Belarusian prison for his political activities, but on Monday, Roman Protasevich took a seat beside generals at a news conference to voice admiration for the authoritarian leader of Belarus, a country that declared him a terrorist.
Protasevich, who was dragged off a Ryanair flight along with his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, three weeks ago by Belarusian security agents, arrested and thrown in jail, made the comments after walking into a room packed with reporters.
“I understand what kind of damage I have inflicted not only on the state, but on the country,” he said during the news conference, which was broadcast live. “Today, I want to do everything to correct this situation.”
Protasevich, who since his teenage years was an avowed opponent of the government, said he had not been coerced into reversing his dissident stance, and he praised the country's strongman leader, Alexander Lukashenko. He appeared nonchalant or tried his best to show no outward sign of duress. He wore civilian clothes and sat calmly beside the generals as cameras rolled. The news conference had not been announced beforehand.
Raw, often chilling videotaped confessions by jailed dissidents are common in Belarus, but they tend to be disregarded outside the country because they appear to be made under duress. Protasevich made a similar statement when he was paraded before reporters within days of his arrest, although he was more obviously under duress and bruises were visible on his arms during that first appearance. Family members said that the earlier statement had been coerced.
Members of the Belarusian opposition said Protasevich's appearance Monday was also made under duress. In protest, journalists from the BBC walked out of the news conference, at which Belarusian authorities had promised to provide new details in their story of how and why the Ryanair flight was forced to land after entering the country's air space on a flight to Lithuania from Greece.
“No matter what he says, let’s not forget: he is a hostage,” Franak Viacorka, a prominent opposition activist who is now living in exile, wrote on Twitter, adding, “This is not a press conference but a scene of either Kafka or Orwell.”
Sitting next to Dmitri Gora, the head of the country's top investigative agency, Protasevich said he "understands what crimes" he will have to respond to. Charged with the incitement of public disorder and social hatred, Protasevich could spend more than a decade in prison if convicted.
Only a few weeks ago, Protasevich (26) described the Belarusian strongman leader as "a dictator" and compared him to Hitler. As the former editor of Nexta, an opposition site on the social network Telegram, Protasevich helped co-ordinate a wave of mass protests last year after Lukashenko claimed victory in an election his opponents said was rigged. Using police violence unseen in Europe for decades, Lukashenko was able to suppress the popular movement against him. The backing of Russian president Vladimir Putin was key in Lukashenko's ability to hold on to power. At the height of protests in September, Putin issued a $1.5 billion loan to Lukashenko. On Monday, that support was reiterated with Russia's foreign ministry spokesperson speaking approvingly of the news conference and criticising the BBC for leaving.
Protasevich’s abrupt change of view is not unusual in Lukashenko’s Belarus, with several opposition activists and media figures having made similar reversals in their public statements after spending time in Belarusian prisons. Yuri Voskresensky, a former political prisoner, described his detention as “hell” and became an avid supporter of Lukashenko upon his release. Some observers have likened these public reversals, including Protasevich’s, to Stalinist show trials.
But Protasevich’s about-face was particularly improbable. Since his teenage years, Protasevich had been active in Belarusian independent media and opposition circles. He was expelled from high school for participating in protests. His family came under such pressure that his parents left the country.
On Monday, Protasevich said his parents are "being used" by opposition politicians and that they can safely return to Belarus. Frequently detained and jailed for short periods, Protasevich decided to move to Poland in November 2019, working with a team disseminating videos, leaked documents and news on Telegram, the social media site. In September last year, Protasevich left Poland for neighbouring Lithuania to join Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the principal opposition candidate in the August election who had been forced to flee. With Lukashenko's other main rivals in detention, Tikhanovskaya had become the main voice of the Belarus opposition.
During the news conference, Protasevich reiterated several times that he was not being pressured to renounce his earlier dissident activities. He said that he feels “wonderful,” and that he hopes to “help his country in the future.”
“I am not wearing a Taser, and I am not being fed a truth serum,” he said. “If you don’t believe me – just say it.”
Sitting in the room, Tatiana Korovenkova, a journalist with the independent BelaPAN news agency, told Protasevich that she did not believe him. "I don't believe what you say because I know what they could have done to you," she said. "I sincerely sympathize with you." – The New York Times