Johnson warns Belarus over ‘distressing’ video of captured journalist

The treatment by Belarus of a captured journalist and prominent government critic “will have consequences”, Boris Johnson has warned.

Roman Protasevich was on board a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius on Sunday when it was forced to change course to head for the Belarus capital after a reported bomb scare, escorted by a MiG fighter jet.

He was arrested and, in a video released by Belarusian authorities on Monday evening, appeared to admit he was involved in organising mass protests in Minsk last year.

The UK Prime Minister said the video was “deeply distressing” and called for Mr Protasevich’s release.

He tweeted: “The video of Roman Protasevich makes for deeply distressing viewing.

“As a journalist and a passionate believer in freedom of speech I call for his immediate release.

“Belarus’ actions will have consequences.”

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Alexander Lukashenko has been president of Belarus since the post was established in 1994 and won re-election for a sixth time in 2020 with 80% of the vote, in a ballot deemed “neither free nor fair” by the European Union.

Since winning the disputed election last August, Mr Lukashenko has cracked down on dissenting voices, with many opposition figures arrested and others forced into exile.

Mr Johnson’s comments came after one of his Cabinet ministers said there was reason to suspect the statement by Mr Protasevich was not “offered voluntarily”.

President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko
President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko has been warned there will be ‘consequences’ following the arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich (Sergei Sheleg/BelTA Pool Photo via AP)

Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey told Sky News: “I don’t think it would come as any surprise (if the statement had been coerced). But I’m not in a position to tell you exactly what our latest intelligence is on the coercion or not of this.

“But all I can say is the behaviour of the Belarus regime does not lend itself to think in any way that this statement was offered voluntarily.”

POLITICS Belarus
(PA Graphics)

The EU and the UK have issued new sanctions against Belarus in light of the arrest, with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps instructing the Civil Aviation Authority to request airlines avoid Belarusian air space “to keep passengers safe”.

He also suspended the operating permit for Belavia, the country’s state-owned airline, while EU leaders have called on member states to do similar.

Speaking in the early hours of Tuesday in Brussels, European Council president Charles Michel said the events were “unacceptable, shocking and scandalous”.

“We will not tolerate that they play Russian roulette with the lives of innocent civilians,” he added.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the incident was a “hijacking”.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has suggested Russia could have been involved with the operation to divert the plane on Sunday.

He said it was “very difficult to believe” the seizure of Mr Protasevich from the flight could have taken place “without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow”.

Mr Raab said that although the situation was not yet clear, the relationship between Minsk and Moscow suggested Russian leaders may have been aware of the plans in advance.

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary said the incident was a “state-sponsored hijacking” and claimed agents from Russia’s KGB were on board the flight.

“It was clear it appears that the intent of the Russian authorities was to remove a journalist and his travelling companion. We believe there was also some KGB agents offloaded from the aircraft as well,” he said.