‘A confession at gunpoint’ Roman Protasevich’s Belarusian state TV interview was conducted under duress, family says

On June 3, Belarusian state TV aired a forced interview with detained opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, who has been in custody in Belarus since May 23. In the video, the former editor-in-chief of the Telegram-based opposition outlet Nexta said that he had pleaded guilty to organizing mass unrest in Belarus after the contested presidential election in 2020. He then went on to praise dictator Alexander Lukashenko (Alyaksandr Lukashenka) and direct criticism at members of the Belarusian opposition. Protasevich’s parents said that in the video, the detained journalist said things he “would never say in his life,” leading them to believe that the interview was conducted under duress. Protasevich also had visible marks on his wrists, fueling allegations that he was tortured in custody.

On the evening of June 3, the state-owned Belarusian television channel ONT aired an “interview” with detained opposition journalist Roman Protasevich. It was shown on the program “Markov: Nothing Personal,” which is hosted by the head of ONT, Marat Markov. During the program, Protasevich — who has been in custody in Belarus since May 23 — made a number of contradictory statements, leading many, including his parents, to believe the interview was conducted under duress. The former chief editor of the prominent opposition Telegram channel Nexta, Protasevich is facing serious charges in Belarus, including organizing mass unrest and inciting social enmity (the former is punishable by up to 15 years in prison, while the latter is punishable by 12 years). 

On air, Protasevich said that he had pleaded guilty to organizing unauthorized mass protests in Belarus after the contested presidential election in 2020. The detained journalist said that he published calls to take to the streets on election day (August 9) and that he had pleaded “fully guilty” to charges under Belarusian Criminal Code article 342 — organizing and preparing actions that violate public order.

Protasevich also claimed that Nexta was sponsored by an unnamed company allegedly belonging to a Russian oligarch. Protasevich, who was formerly Nexta’s editor-in-chief, alleged that the opposition Telegram channel was funded through advertising, donations from readers, and — as Nexta co-founder Stepan Putilo (Stsiapan Putsila) supposedly told him — several thousand euros from an unnamed Russian firm “connected to the Urals and mining” and owned by a well-known Russian oligarch. Protasevich also claimed that after the opposition protests in Belarus tapered off, the Telegram channel Nexta Live was allegedly supposed to take up a “Russian agenda.”

In addition to praising dictator Alexander Lukashenko, Protasevich criticizing the Belarusian opposition. In particular, the detained journalist directed criticism at members of the opposition’s coordination council and those working with Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya). He also alleged that a member of Tikhanovskaya’s circle, Daniil Bogdanovich, was behind the forced landing of the Ryanair flight in Minsk. Protasevich claimed he had conflict with Bogdanovich beforehand, echoing previous statements from questioning footage that ONT aired on June 2, as part of a “documentary investigation” about the Ryanair diversion. 

At the end of the interview, traces of injuries could be seen on Roman Protasevich’s wrists. Screenshots of the ONT recording, such as the one below shared by the independent Belarusian newspaper Nasha Niva, show Protasevich crying and covering his face with his hands — revealing bruises and abrasions on his wrists. The detained journalist’s parents, Dmitry and Natalya Protasevich, also pointed out these injuries after ONT aired footage of Roman Protasevich being questioned on June 2. Protasevich’s parents told Current Time TV that they noticed bruises and marks from handcuffs on their son’s arms. Natalya Protasevich also drew attention to the fact that in the questioning video, Roman Protasevich’s face appeared “blurred” and “darkened,” saying this was likely an attempt to hide bruises on his face and strangulation marks on his neck. 

Roman Protasevich’s father maintained that his son gave the “interview” after being tortured. Dmitry Protasevich told Current Time TV that watching the footage, he could see in his son’s face that Roman was experiencing an “internal struggle between what he’s supposed to say and what he would never say in his life.” “I’m sure this is the consequences of his more than a week-long stay in the dungeons of the KGB pre-trial detention center, of abuse and torture. At first they tried to strangle him and beat him, now traces of handcuffs are visible,” Protasevich senior said, adding that Roman was likely “force-fed some kind of psychotropic [drugs].” In turn, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s advisor Franak Viačorka described Protasevich’s statements as the “confession of a person at gunpoint.” Tikhanovskaya’s press secretary Anna Krasulina said, “this isn’t an interview, this is torture.”

Clips from ONT’s “interview” with Roman ProtasevichMeduza

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Story by Alexander Baklanov

Translated and updated by Eilish Hart


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