Roman Protasevich: Dissident Belarusian journalist claims he was ‘set up’ by associate after plane arrest

A dissident journalist, held in custody in Belarus after being arrested when his Ryanair flight was diverted, has claimed in a new video that he was set up by an unidentified associate.

Roman Protasevich, 26, made his comments from prison during an hour-long TV programme on the Belarusian state-controlled ONT channel.

He was detained by authorities on 23 May after the plane travelling from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, was diverted to Minsk by Belarusian flight controllers who cited a bomb threat.

No bomb was found on board after the landing, but he and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested.

The programme claimed Belarusian authorities were unaware he was on board when the plane was ordered to land in the capital.

Mr Protasevich said he had put a notice about his travel plans during 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.

Mr Protasevich accused the associate – who he didn’t name – of having links with opposition-leaning 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 realised that it’s useless to panic,” Mr Protasevich said.

One of Mr Protasevich’s associates said the dissident was clearly speaking under duress.

The journalist said that once the plane taxied to a parking spot, he described seeing heavily-armed special forces waiting.

“It was a dedicated SWAT unit – uniforms, flak jackets and weapons,” he said.

Speaking in the ONT film, Mr Protasevich acknowledged the anti-government protests have fizzled out but argued that the opposition should wait until economic problems lead to broad public discontent.

“We need to wait until the economic situation worsens and people take to the street for a mug of soup, to put it bluntly,” he said.

The journalist is shown saying that demonstrations against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko are now pointless amid a tough crackdown.

He suggested that the opposition waits for a more opportune moment.

The Ryanair flight’s diversion last month outraged the European Union, which barred the Belarusian flag carrier from its skies.

European carriers were also told to avoid Belarusian airspace and drafted new sanctions against key sectors of the Belarusian economy.

Mr Lukashenko has ruled the ex-Soviet nation with an iron fist for more than a quarter of a century and accused the West of trying to “strangle” Belarus.

Mr Protasevich left Belarus in 2019 and has become a leading opponent of Mr Lukashenko.

He ran a popular channel on the Telegram messaging app that played a key role in organising anti-government protests.

He was charged with inciting mass disturbances – accusations that could lead to a 15-year prison sentence.

A day after his arrest, Mr Protasevich said he was confessing to staging mass disturbances in a video from the detention centre.

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His parents, who now live in Poland, said the confession seemed to be coerced.

In the ONT film, Mr Protasevich 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 programme, but she was shown in a video from prison last week, confessing to running a channel that revealed personal data about Belarusian security officers.

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