The parents of a Belarusian dissident journalist arrested after a passenger jet was diverted to land in Minsk have said they are worried about their son’s welfare and issued an emotional plea for help.
“World, please stand up and help. I urge you very much because they will kill him, they will kill him,” Natalia Pratasevich said through tears during an interview in Poland.
She said her son Roman Protasevich’s nose appeared to be broken and make-up appeared to be covering up bruises in a video released of him in custody in which he says he has confessed to some of the charges against him.
His father, Dmitry Protasevich, said his son must have been forced to make the confessions.
Belarus’s authoritarian president lashed out on Wednesday at Europe for trying to “strangle” his country with sanctions over the diversion of the Ryanair plane, and accused Mr Protasevich of working to foment a “bloody rebellion”.
President Alexander Lukashenko defended his decision to order the plane to land in his country, maintaining there was a bomb threat against it. He called it an “absolute lie” that a fighter jet he scrambled forced the flight to land.
European Union leaders denounced the move to divert the plane as an act of piracy.
Ryanair said its crew was instructed to land. The plane was searched once on the ground, and no bomb was found — but Mr Protasevich, 26, and his Russian girlfriend were detained.
“I acted in a lawful way, protecting people in line with international rules,” said Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet nation with an iron fist for more than a quarter of a century, relentlessly stifling dissent.
He claimed there had been a grave security risk as the plane was flying not far from the Astravets nuclear power plant, and he ordered air defence systems on high alert.
But he also alleged that Mr Protasevich and his associates were working with foreign spy agencies to “organise a massacre and a bloody rebellion in Belarus”.
Mr Lukashenko has faced unprecedented pressure at home with months of protests triggered by his re-election to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition rejected as rigged. More than 35,000 people have since been arrested, with thousands beaten.
Mr Protasevich, who left Belarus in 2019, has become a leading critic of Mr Lukashenko with a popular messaging app he ran playing a key role in helping organise the huge protests.
Ivan Tertel, the chief of the Belarusian state security agency that still goes under its Soviet-era acronym KGB, said Mr Protasevich told investigators about “the sponsors of subversive activities against Belarus, its mechanisms and special services and politicians behind it” and promised to release details soon.
Mr Protasevich had been charged in absentia with staging mass riots and fanning social hatred. Those carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years, and some fear he could face more serious charges, including some that carry the death penalty.
In response to his arrest and the diversion of the flight, which was travelling between two EU countries, leaders quickly agreed to ban Belarusian airlines from using the air space and airports of the 27-nation bloc and urged European airlines to avoid Belarus air space.
They agreed to draft more sanctions on officials linked to the diversion and ones targeting businesses that are the main cash earners for Mr Lukashenko’s regime.
He responded: “Our ill-wishers outside and inside the country have changed their methods of attacking the state. That’s why they switched from organising riots to trying to strangle us.
“It’s no longer just an information war, it’s a modern hybrid war and we need to do everything to prevent it from spilling into a hot conflict.
“We were stopping migrants and drugs — now you will catch them and eat them yourself.”