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Belarus dissident’s ‘confession’ video suggests coercion and torture, experts and advocates say

Roman Protasevich is detained by police in Minsk in 2017. (Sergei Grits/AP)
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A video purporting to show dissident Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich confessing to organizing “mass riots” has met with skepticism from scholars, family members and human rights groups who say that there is little doubt that he was coerced.

The 29-second video surfaced Monday evening, a day after Belarusian authorities forced a plane with Protasevich on board to land so that he could be arrested, roiling European aviation and prompting an E.U. agreement to impose sanctions. In the footage, Protasevich, seated against a blank wall in a brightly lit room, says that he is being treated “as correctly as possible” and is not experiencing any health problems.

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The detained journalist’s demeanor in the video alarmed his father, Dzmitry, who told Reuters that his son’s nose appeared to have been broken, “because the shape of it is changed,” and that his remarks were out of character.

“It’s not his words, it’s not his intonation of speech, he is acting very reserved, and you can see he is nervous,” Dzmitry Protasevich said. “My son cannot admit to creating the mass disorders, because he just didn’t do any such thing.”

In the video, Protasevich’s face appears to be marked with abrasions and bruises, suggesting that authorities subjected him to “torture or other ill-treatment” before recording the supposed confession, Amnesty International spokesman Alexander Artemyev told The Washington Post.

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Belarus has a reputation for using intimidation and coercion to force confessions from political prisoners, as a 2018 report from the U.S. secretary of state on human rights abuses in the Eastern European nation noted. Last year, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya raised suspicions when she appeared to read from a script in a video where she requested that supporters refrain from attending anti-government demonstrations. She later said that her family had faced threats.

Tikhanovskaya, who has since fled to Lithuania, said Tuesday that there was “no doubt” that Protasevich had been tortured and was “under pressure” when the video was filmed.

Jennifer Mathers, a senior lecturer in international politics at Aberystwyth University, told The Post that Protasevich’s supposed confession video “fits a longer historical pattern that goes back to Soviet times of demanding false confessions, especially where there is no real evidence to support a conviction.” She noted that the jailed journalist appears to be speaking from a script in the video and that his statements are “radically different from his pre-detention position.”

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The idea that someone who has devoted his professional life to the pro-democracy movement in Belarus, at considerable personal risk, would freely confess to security services is “not believable,” Mathers added.

World leaders have also approached the video with skepticism. President Biden said in a statement Monday that it appeared to have been “made under duress” and called for Protasevich’s immediate release.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted Tuesday that the video “makes for deeply distressing viewing” and added, “Belarus’ actions will have consequences.”

Airlines operating in Europe are working to avoid Belarus after the country ordered the grounding of a Ryanair plane flying from Greece to Lithuania on May 23. (Video: Reuters)

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“All I can say is the behavior of the Belarus regime does not lend itself to think that in any way this statement was offered voluntarily,” Therese Coffey, a British government minister, told Sky News on Tuesday.

Belarus’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The video of Protasevich’s alleged confession was distributed in multiple channels on the social media and messaging site Telegram that are allied with Belarus’s strongman president, Alexander Lukashenko.

An additional video purporting to show a confession from Sofia Sapega, Protasevich’s girlfriend, was released Tuesday evening, raising similar concerns about coercion. In the video, Sapega says that she operated a Telegram channel that shared law enforcement officers’ personal information.

Protasevich, 26, helped found an alternative Telegram channel that helped document and coordinate protests against the government last year. His mother, Nataliya, told the Committee to Project Journalists on Monday that she fears for his safety because he has severe heart problems that have prevented him from serving in the military, and that she had received word that he might have been hospitalized after his arrest.

Belarusian authorities said Monday that Protasevich was not hospitalized and was being held in a detention center in Minsk, a claim that could not be verified from the video.

This report has been updated.

Mary Ilyushina contributed reporting.