State TV broadcast an interview of journalist Roman Protasevich in which he said he called for anti-Lukashenko protests last year, a confession the opposition, UK and Germany say was "clearly under duress".
Roman Protasevich, dissident Belarusian journalist and opposition activist who was arrested after his airline flight was diverted to Minsk has wept in an interview on state TV, saying he was fully cooperating with investigators and declaring that he respects the president he opposed for years.
UK, Germany and Belarus opposition slammed the Belarus government on Friday, calling the interview "disturbing," and which they alleged was held "clearly under duress."
The broadcast on Thursday was the second appearance in two days by the 26-year-old, whose arrest on May 23 was denounced in the West.
Protasevich was a founder of a messaging app channel that was a key information conduit for opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko, whose election to a sixth term last year set off months of protests, many of them attracting 100,000 people or more.
#Belarus‘ian state TV aired an interview with Roman #Protasevich, where he criticizes Belarusian opposition, pleads guilty, and praises Lukashenko for having "steel balls". It's painful to watch.— Ostap Yarysh (@OstapYarysh) June 3, 2021
'Disgraceful and implausible'
Protasevich was arrested after his flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, was diverted following an alleged bomb threat. Western countries say the move amounted to air piracy by Belarus.
At the end of the 90-minute interview, in which Protasevich sat on a stark black set, he said, "I am cooperating absolutely fully and openly ... and live an ordinary, calm life, have a family, children, stop running away from something."
He then covered his face with his hands and wept.
German government spokesperson Steffen Seibert called the broadcast "absolutely disgraceful and implausible."
Seibert said Berlin "condemned in the strongest terms" Protasevich's second apparently coerced media appearance since his detention, and accused Belarusian authorities of "mentally and possibly physically" pressuring him into speaking before the camera.
"That is a disgrace for the broadcaster showing (the interview) and for the Belarusian leadership which is once again showing its contempt for democracy and, it must be said, for humanity," Seibert said.
Result of 'torture'
His associates reacted with outrage, accusing the Belarusian authorities of forcing Protasevich to smear himself and disavow the opposition.
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya dismissed the interview as the result of "torture."
"All such videos are shot under pressure. We don't have to pay attention even to these words because they are done after torture... The task of political prisoners is to survive," she told reporters.
Tsikhanouskaya's spokesperson, Anna Krasulina, described Protasevich as a hostage.
"He made his statements under tough physical and psychological pressure and, possibly, under drugs," Krasulina told The Associated Press. "We demand the immediate release of Roman, who is used by Lukashenko's regime as a toy and instrument to blackmail Belarus' democratic forces."
This comes as Tsikhanouskaya urged the US, Britain and the European Union (EU) to act jointly to put more pressure on Lukashenko and his government during a visit to Warsaw, Poland ahead of a G7 summit on Friday.
Protasevich calls for end to demonstrations
In footage broadcast on Wednesday on state TV, Protasevich said demonstrations against Lukashenko had fizzled and the opposition should wait for a better moment to revive them.
He also said that he had been set up by an unidentified associate.
"Now we need to abandon ... the street activity we had before, those formats in which we worked," Protasevich said in the Wednesday show. "Because there is simply no such activity now, and there can't be any now."
He said the opposition should wait for an economic downturn to mount a new challenge.
"We need to wait until the economic situation worsens ... and people take to the street for a bowl of soup, to put it bluntly," he said.
He described seeing heavily armed special forces waiting as the plane taxied to a parking spot.
"It was a dedicated SWAT unit — uniforms, flak jackets and weapons," he said.
Presence of 'sleeper cells'
Protasevich, who fled Belarus in 2019, said he had been in contact with conspirators who planned a forceful seizure of power in Belarus and that he was a liaison between them and Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to Lithuania after losing the election to Lukashenko.
Russia in April arrested two Belarusians who it said were plotting to overthrow Lukashenko.
Protasevich said that "most likely, there are still several sleeper cells" of overthrow plotters in Belarus.
Belarusian flag carrier banned from EU airspace
The presenter of the broadcast on the ONT channel claimed the Belarusian authorities were unaware that Protasevich was aboard the Ryanair jet that was diverted.
Outraged EU leaders responded to the flight diversion by barring the Belarusian flag carrier Belavia from the bloc's airports and airspace and telling European airlines to skirt Belarus.
They also drafted bruising new measures against the country's top industrial enterprises, doubling down on sanctions previously introduced by the US and the EU.
Lukashenko has accused the West of trying to "strangle" his country with sanctions.
On Thursday, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry announced cuts of US diplomatic personnel, the tightening of travel rules for Americans and other restrictions in retaliation to the US sanctions against Belarusian companies.
'I have been set up'
The journalist said he disclosed his travel plans in a chat with associates 40 minutes before his departure.
He alleged that the bomb threat could have been issued by someone with whom he had a personal conflict, but he did not elaborate.
Protasevich said that the person — whom he did not identify — had links with opposition-minded hackers who have attacked official Belarusian websites and issued bomb threats in the past.
"The first thing I thought was that I have been set up," he said. "When the plane was on a landing path, I realised that it’s useless to panic."
Some time before the flight, Protasevich said, he had a rift with Franak Viachorka, an adviser to Tsikhanouskaya.
Asked about Wednesday video, Viachorka told The Associated Press that Protasevich is now "a hostage under pressure" and insisted they have friendly ties.