As It Happens

Why BBC staff walked out of a Belarus press conference featuring a jailed journalist

BBC correspondent Jonah Fisher says he was surprised Monday when Belarusian authorities trotted out jailed journalist Roman Protasevich during a press conference about his case.

Supporters of Roman Protasevich say he's clearly a hostage and that his speech was made under duress

Jailed Belarus journalist Roman Protasevich takes part in a press conference about the forced landing of the Ryanair passenger plane on which he was travelling. His supporters say he was coerced to echo official Belarusan talking points to protect himself and his girlfriend. (Ramil Nasibulin/BelTA/Reuters)

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BBC correspondent Jonah Fisher says he was surprised Monday when Belarusian authorities trotted out jailed journalist Roman Protasevich during a press conference about his case.

Protasevich sat smiling alongside four officials, two of whom were in uniform, and told reporters that he had not been forced to co-operate, was in good health and had not been harmed after being arrested last month when his Ryanair flight was forced to land in Minsk.

Protasevich's family and supporters say he's clearly a hostage and that his speech was made under duress. But Fisher wasn't on hand to see it. He and his two colleagues walked out of the press conference in protest. 

"Immediately, I initiated a few conversations through messaging with some of my BBC colleagues ... because obviously there was quite a big decision for us to make to just get up and go," Fisher, who was reporting from Belarus, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"But very quickly, we were all in agreement that this was not something we were we wanted to be part of. We felt that we were being used by the Belarusian authorities to try and lend some credibility to this event, and we didn't feel comfortable being there any longer."

Protasevich, an outspoken critic of President Alexander Lukashenko, was detained along with his girlfriend Sofia Sapega on May 23 after authorities in Belarus forced the commercial flight they were on to land in Minsk over an alleged bomb threat.

Since then, he has made several public appearances, in which he recanted his previous criticism of Lukashenko and admitted to planning to topple the government by organizing "riots."

In one such video, he appeared to have bruises on his face covered with makeup, and marks on his wrists, possibly from handcuffs or other restraints. 

"There was immediately discussion about whether he had been maltreated here in detention. Going by the stories which we've heard of other people — protesters, for example — who have been detained by the authorities here over the last year or so, that would be very much in keeping with what happens in detention centres here," Fisher said.

"I've seen pretty horrific marks on people's bodies when they've been beaten by the security forces here. So it would not be surprising in the least if Mr. Protasevich had been badly treated."

Protasevich is seen in a pre-trial detention facility on May 24 in this still image taken from video, and appears to have makeup-covered bruises on his face. (Telegram@Zheltyeslivy/Reuters TV/Reuters)

At Monday's press conference, Protasevich struck a jovial and conciliatory tone.

"Everything is fine with me. Nobody beat me; nobody touched me," he said. "I understand the damage I have caused not only to the state, but also to the country. Now I want to do everything in my power to rectify this situation."

Fisher said the statement was a "complete reversal from everything he stood for before."

Before he fled Belarus in 2019, Protasevich was the editor of the opposition Nexta channel on the Telegram messaging app, which Fisher says played a significant role in organizing last fall's anti-government protests. 

"Another factor which may have influenced or may be influencing the way he is appearing in public is that his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, she was also detained with him on that flight when she when they landed here in Mink. She is also facing charges herself from the authorities," Fisher said.

"So there is clearly a lot going along, taking place behind the scenes, in relation to Mr. Protasevich. We do not know how he is being treated. We do not know what pressure is being put on him. And it's on that basis, really, that we treat everything that he is saying when he is being effectively paraded before cameras with the utmost suspicion and a lot of caution."

People attend unveil of a mural in solidarity with detained Protasevich and his family, in Wroclaw, Poland, on June 5. (Tomasz Pietrzyk/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters)

The arrest and the forced diversion of the Ryanair plane last month sparked uproar in the West, feeding calls for tougher sanctions to be put on Lukashenko's government.

The European Union accused Lukashenko of kidnapping and "state piracy," and the Canadian government said it is considering sanctions against the country

The Ryanair pilot who landed the plane told a British parliamentary committee he had no choice but bow to Minsk air traffic control's demands. 

The flight was heading from Greece to Lithuania, and the pilot said the usual policy would have been to divert to Poland or the Baltic states. He said he "repeatedly" asked to speak with Ryanair's operations control centre, but "Minsk gave excuses that Ryanair in Poland were not answering the phone."

Belarus, meanwhile, denies it was a forced landing and insists there was a credible bomb threat.

"And yet at the same time, they keep on parading Mr. Protasevich in front of television cameras and at this press conference to repeatedly tell everybody that, yes, he did commit these supposed crimes, that he's being accused of, that he's being treated well," Fisher said. 

"So on one hand, they're saying it's nothing to do with Mr. Protasevich. But at the same time, they're effectively trying to say, 'Well, we arrested someone who has clearly done something wrong. Here he is, and he's admitted to his crimes.' So it's a strange strategy."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Jonah Fisher produced by Jeanne Armstrong.

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