‘He’s been tortured and beaten’: Former girlfriend fears for Belarusian journalist taken off Ryanair flight

Belarusian authorities were on Tuesday accused of torturing the journalist seized from a plane after they released videos in which he and his girlfriend “confess” to crimes against the state.

Roman Protasevich, the former editor-in-chief of opposition news channel Nexta, was detained in Minsk on Sunday alongside his partner, Sofia Sapega, a master’s student. Belarusian officials ordered a Ryanair plane to land in the capital on the false pretext of a bomb threat.

World leaders have condemned the incident as “state terrorism” and a “hijacking”.

Friends and family of Protasevich, 26, told the Telegraph that his nose appeared broken in the video of his confession broadcast on state TV on Monday night.

Pressure is growing on Russia to intervene after Sapega, a 23-year-old Russian citizen who lives in Vilnius, said she moderated a Telegram channel publishing personal information on Belarusian police.

Protasevich’s mother said authorities are “going to kill him” unless world leaders intervene to secure his release.

“I’m asking, I’m begging, I’m calling on the whole international community to save him,” an emotion Natalia Protasevich said, revealing she has not slept for two nights.

“He’s only one journalist, he’s only one child but please, please. I’m begging for help.

“Please save him. They’re going to kill him in there.”

The admission is at odds with reports that Sapega, who did not appear to have been harmed, has never been politically active. She was on Tuesday arrested for two months pending investigation.

The Kremlin had earlier said they expected her release shortly.

Responding to the video of Protasevich, his former girlfriend and colleague Katarzyna Jerozolimska said “I’m sure that he has been tortured and beaten.”

“His nose is deformed, it was clearly broken,” she said, noting that his right cheek was also puffed up as if he had lost a tooth.

“I can see that he’s really scared and that he was forced to say this,” added Jerozolimska, who worked with Protasevich at Nexta.

Protasevich had been missing for more than 24 hours before Belarusian media on Monday evening ran reports that he was in hospital.

A pro-government channel on the Telegram messaging app later published a video showing the 26-year-old journalist in custody, confessing to the organisation of riots in Minsk last year.

“I can state that I have no heart problems or any other health issues. Law enforcement officials are treating me properly and lawfully,” said a visibly tense Protasevich, sitting at a desk with a packet of cigarettes and a lighter nearby.

The journalist’s father, Dzmitry Protasevich, also pointed to the odd shape of Mr Protasevich’s nose and said he believed he was forced to confess.

“My son cannot admit to organising riots because he just didn’t do any such thing,” he told Reuters.

Protasevich, who fled the country in 2019, faces three sets of charges in Belarus, including organising riots, which could send him to prison for 15 years.

He is currently at Minsk’s Detention Facility No. 1 in the centre of Minsk, the same facility where Maria Kolesnikova, the opposition leader who famously tore up her passport last September to avoid a forcible expulsion, is kept.

Inna Olenskaya, a lawyer for Protasevich, told the Telegraph that she spent all morning on Tuesday, trying to get a meeting with his client but she was not allowed to see him.

Katsiaryna Shafranovich, Sapega’s classmate who also studies international law at European Humanities University in Vilnius, told the Telegraph that she was not known to be politically active or involved in any opposition activities in Belarus.

Nexta’s feed on Telegram that Protasevich managed until September last year was a major source of information on last summer’s massive opposition protests against Alexander Lukashenko and the ensuing crackdown.

Stsiapan Putsila, co-founder of Nexta, told the Telegraph he fears for his former colleague after watching that video.

“You can see that Roman has been threatened and mistreated. I could see make-up on his face, and he is not speaking the way he normally does,” Putsila told the Telegraph.

“Roman is being tortured in a Belarusian jail, and he needs help as soon as possible. I can only imagine how hard it must be for him.”

Putsila and Jerozolimska told the Telegraph that Nexta, which has helped protesters to coordinate their rallies, has been flooded with threats since the August protests.

“I was told I’m the next one on the list after Roman,” Putsila said, quoting a recent message.

Forced confessions are part of the playbook of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country for 26 years.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main contender at last year’s election, appeared in a video filed the day after the massive protests against what appeared to be a rigged vote, and asked her supporters to back down and accept Lukashenko’s victory.

She resurfaced in Lithuania several days later and said she was forced to make a confession on camera and expelled from Belarus.

Tsikhanouskaya on Tuesday also voiced fears that Protasevich had been tortured.

“He is saying that he is treated well but he has clearly been beaten and coerced,” she told reporters in Vilnius.

“We have no doubt that he may have been tortured. He has been taken hostage.”

European Union leaders on Monday called for the immediate release of Protasevich and his partner.

The EU, along with Britain, the United States and Canada had already targeted Belarusian officials with visa bans and assets freezes following last year’s presidential elections, which were marred by widespread vote rigging and staggering violence against protesters in the streets and torture in custody.

Hundreds of thousands rallied in Belarusian cities in summer and autumn last year, demanding Lukashenko’s resignation but the Belarusian dictator has managed to cling on to power.

– Additional reporting, NZ Herald

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