Minsk confirms Protasevich’s whereabouts, but denies worsening health

(Update 2: Adds information about Protasevich video confession)

Moscow, May 24 (EFE).- Belarusian police on Monday confirmed the whereabouts of journalist Roman Protasevich, who was taken into custody on the weekend after Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair jet en route from Athens to Lithuania, with him on board, to land in Minsk.

Protasevich, 26, is in Preventive Prison No. 1 in the Belarusian capital, Olga Chemodanova, the spokesperson for the country’s Interior Ministry, said on the Telegram channel.

She rejected the report that Protasevich had been admitted to a hospital after a sudden deterioration in his health.

The reporter’s mother told several media outlets that she had received a call saying that her son had been hospitalized for a cardiac problem and that his condition was critical.

“Roman has heart problems, for which he was not sent to the army. On one occasion he was in a pre-heart attack situation. If they did something to him, that could cause a heart attack,” she told Belsat.

Meanwhile, a Telegram pro-government channel broadcast a video, which afterwards was reproduced on public television, in which Protasevich denied having any “health problems” and said that the treatment he had received so far from the Belarusian security forces had been “correct.”

He also said that he is “cooperating with the investigation” and admitted his “culpability” for having organized massive protests in Minsk – the largest in the country’s history – after the fraudulent August 2020 presidential election.

Many prominent Lukashenko critics, including Protasevich and his family, went into exile in neighboring Lithuania when authorities cracked down on protesters after the vote.

Protasevich, for whom a search and capture order had been issued by Minsk, was detained on Sunday when the passenger flight from Athens to Vilnius, was forced to make an emergency landing in the Belarusian capital because of an alleged bomb threat.

The reporter, the co-founder and former director of Telegram’s Nexta channel, the main information source on the anti-government protests that erupted after the rigged presidential election last August, could be sentenced to 15 years in prison on terrorism charges.

Protasevich became a well-known opposition activist 10 years ago at the age of 16 when he was arrested for organizing online protests against the country’s long-serving president, Alexander Lukashenko.

The Belarusian KGB in November 2020 included him on its list of terrorists after the country’s judiciary filed charges against him for organizing massive demonstrations, harming the public order and instigating social discord.

The European Union and the United States have demanded his immediate release, just as the Belarusian opposition in exile has done, accusing the KGB of having arrested him in a special capture operation.

Belarusian authorities denied having diverted the aircraft to arrest the reporter, but rather said that a bomb threat had been issued against the flight, although local security forces found no explosive device when the plane was searched on the ground in Minsk.

Police also arrested Protasevich’s girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, a Russian student at the European Humanitarian University in Vilnius, who was traveling with the reporter to Vilnius.

According to her relatives, Sapega is being held at the infamous Okrestina center in Minsk, where dozens of demonstrators became the victims of abuse and torture at the hands of Belarusian security forces after the presidential elections.

Russia has defended the actions of Belarusian authorities and, regarding Protasevich’s arrest, have said that that is an internal matter.

Meanwhile, the leader of the Belarusian opposition in exile has called for fresh international sanctions on Minsk after the plane diversion and Protasevich’s arrest, an incident the European Union has branded an “international scandal.”

In a brief press conference in Vilnius, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya described the plane diversion as an act of “state terrorism” that meant no Belarusian civilian flying in the country’s air space was safe.

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