Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich is seen in a confession video published one day after Belarusian authorities detained him from a Ryanair flight that was forced to land in Minsk. (Photo: Zhyoltiye Slivy Telegram Channel/Screenshot)

Detained Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich appears in ‘confession’ video

Vilnius, Lithuania, May 24, 2021 — Belarusian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release journalist Raman Pratasevich, who was detained yesterday, and allow him to leave the country freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Today, Pratasevich appeared in a 29-second video first published by the pro-government Telegram channel Zhyoltiye Slivy. In that video, which CPJ reviewed, Pratasevich can be seen with his hands clasped tightly in front of him and apparent bruises or scuff marks on his forehead; he says that he had no complaints about his detention, was cooperating with authorities, and confessed to “organizing mass riots” in Minsk. CPJ was unable to verify the time or circumstances under which the video was recorded.

Yesterday, Belarusian authorities diverted a commercial Ryanair flight en route from Athens, Greece, to Vilinus, Lithuania, and forced it to land in Minsk, Belarus, where authorities detained Pratasevich, co-founder of NEXTA and chief editor of Belarus of the Brain, two Telegram channels that have covered protests against Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, according to news reports. Authorities also detained Pratasevich’s girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who was traveling with him, according to reports.

“Belarusian authorities must release journalist Raman Pratasevich immediately, ensure he receives any medical treatment he requires, and allow him and his partner to leave the country as soon as possible,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Gulnoza Said, in New York. “By first diverting a commercial flight and then airing a ‘confession’ video to silence Pratasevich, the Belarusian government has shown that it will cross any red line to harass and detain independent voices who dare to challenge President Lukashenko. Authorities should know by now that these tactics will not stop independent reporting in the country.”

Earlier today, before the video was published, Pratasevich’s mother, Nataliya, told CPJ in a phone interview that authorities had not told her where her son is being held, and said she was very concerned for his safety.

She added that Pratasevich has “serious heart problems” that had prevented him from serving in the military, and said she was told by a person familiar with his situation that her son may have been taken to a hospital. Nataliya Pratasevich told CPJ that she did not want to identify that person out of fear for their safety. 

This evening, the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs wrote on Telegram that Pratasevich was being held in the Minsk No. 1 Detention Center, and that reports that he had been hospitalized were inaccurate.

In the video shared online this evening, Pratasevich said that he had not had any health problems in detention.

Volha Khvoin, head of analysis and information services at the Belarusian Association of Journalists, a local advocacy and trade organization, told CPJ via phone that the association was trying to find information about where Pratasevich is being held. She added that she believed the journalist was presently being held without access to a lawyer. 

CPJ could not independently confirm where Pratasevich was being held, his health status, or whether he has seen a lawyer.

Yesterday, in a post on Telegram, the Belarusian Investigative Committee, the country’s intelligence agency, wrote that it had forced the Ryanair flight to land because it had received information that there was a bomb aboard the plane. The committee wrote that the plane was searched in Minsk and no bomb was found, and that authorities were investigating whether anyone had filed a false police report about the alleged bomb, but did not include any comment on Pratasevich’s detention.

The Belarusian Department for Organized Crime Control briefly acknowledged Pratasevich’s detention in a statement on Telegram yesterday that was then deleted; the country’s Ministry of Transportation announced today the plane was forced to land in Minsk because of threats from people connected to Hamas, according to news reports

In November 2020, the Investigative Committee announced that Pratasevich and NEXTA co-founder Stsiapan Putsila had been charged with “organizing mass unrest” and “incitement of racial, national, religious or other social unrest.” 

Putsila lives in exile in Poland; Pratasevich did the same until his detention, according to those reports. 

Convictions for organizing unrest can be punishable by up to 15 years in prison; convictions for incitement can carry up to 12 years, according to the Belarusian criminal code.

CPJ called the Belarusian of Ministry of Transportation’s Department of Aviation and Communication, but the person who answered the phone said the department could not comment. CPJ called and emailed the State Security Committee, which oversees the Investigative Committee, and the K.G.B. for comment, but did not receive any replies. 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Twitter today condemned the “unacceptable hijacking of the Ryanair flight” and said the commission was discussing sanctions that would “keep pressure on the regime until it respects the freedom of opinion and of the media.”

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda described Belarus’s actions as “abhorrent,” and Lithuanian prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into the forced landing, reports said. The government of Ireland, where Ryanair is headquartered, described the incident as “absolutely unacceptable”; Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki denounced Belarus’s actions as “an act of state terrorism”; and NATO representatives called for an international investigation, those reports said.