Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, who was dramatically taken into custody through a plane hijacking, has appeared online and made a confession, apparently under duress, even as international condemnation over the incident grew and calls for his release were heard louder around the world.
Protasevich, appearing on video, dressed in black hoodie and sitting in front of a desk with black markings on his forehead, said he was confessing to organizing mass protests in Belarusian capital Minsk.
Charges Carry Death Penalty
The prominent critic of dictator Alexander Lukashenko, whose news portal carried visuals and footage of the suppression of last year's popular pro-democracy protests in Belarus, is facing charges that even carry death penalty.
The 26-year-old also said, trying to keep a straight face, that he is cooperating with the investigators. In a video clip that was released by Belarusian state media, he rebuts concerns that he had heath problems. His supporters had raised concerns over his health and said he was most likely being tortured by Lukashenko's police.
"I am in Detention Centre No1 in Minsk. I can say that I have no health problems, including with my heart or any other organs," he is seen as saying in the video.
"The attitude of employees towards me is as correct as possible and according to the law. I continue cooperating with investigators and am confessing to having organised mass unrest in the city of Minsk,' Protasevich continues.
Earlier, even as uncertainty and confusion prevailed over his whereabouts, there were reports that Protosevich was hospitalized with a serious heart condition. There were even reports that his mother received the news that the dissident journalist was critically ill.
The Belarusian Interior Ministry rejected such reports, saying he was being held in a detention facility in the capital Minsk. "This information does not correspond with reality ...The administration of the institution has not received any complaints about his health,' the ministry clarified.
Girlfriend Sofia Sapega Arrested
Protosevich's girlfriend Sofia Sapega, a university in Vilnius, was also arresting along with him. She had accomapnied the journalist to Greece and was flying back with him to Lithuania. It has been reported that the 23-year-old student hails from Russia.
Sapega's detention was confirmed by her family. The university spokesman also Sapega and Protasevich were on vacation in Greece together.
How the Hijacking Unfolded
According to data from flight tracking website flightradar24.com, Ryanair flight 4978 was just two minutes away from crossing into Lithuanian airspace. The flight then changed direction following a "security alert," and descended towards the capital of Belarus, Minsk.
Upon landing in Minsk, Pratasevich was arrested immediately. Ryanair said the flight crew was notified by Belarus ATC of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.
The passenger plane was escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet of Belarus even as it travelled to Minsk.
Shaken Protasevich Handed Laptop and Phone to Girlfriend
Reuters reported that Protasevich was shaken when he learned that the plane, flying from Athens to Vilnius in Lithuania, was being diverted into Minsk.
Reports on Monday said, citing an eyewitness on the flight, that Protasevich pulled out a bag from the overhead bin, took out his laptop and smartphone and handed them to his girlfriend who was travelling with him.
When he was taken into custody at the reserve airport at Minsk, he screamed in horror that he would face death penalty in Belarus.
Protosevich became a key figure in the Belarus opposition after the currently exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya lost the presidential election to Lukashenko, in what was widely condemned as a rigged election.
After his detention, Tsikhanouskaya raised concerns for his life. "We're really afraid, not only for his freedom but for his life,' she told Sky News.
In the US, President Joe Biden condemned the forced diversion of the plane, calling it an 'outrageous incident.' "This outrageous incident and the video Mr Protasevich appears to have made under duress are shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press," Biden said in a statement.
"The United States joins countries around the world in calling for his release, as well as for the release of the hundreds of political prisoners who are being unjustly detained by the Lukashenka regime," he added.