Watch: Roman Protasevich attends press conference in Minsk
Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich has appeared in front of reporters in Minsk at a government press conference on the forced landing of the Ryanair passenger plane he was travelling on before his arrest in May.
The 26-year-old can be seen walking into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs briefing, which was live-streamed on YouTube, before taking a seat alongside officials and answering reporters’ questions.
Mr Protasevich claimed to be in a “great mood” and stressed that no one had beaten him after his arrest. He added that he had not been forced to cooperate with Belarusian investigators and was exercising his “personal choice” in doing so.
But journalists at the scene disputed that. BBC reporter Jonah Fisher tweeted that he had walked out of the press conference because Mr Protasevich was “clearly there under duress”.
Minsk-born journalist Hanna Liubakova, meanwhile, tweeted that she was “in Orwell’s 1984” and accused authorities of holding Mr Protasevich “hostage”.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is “blaming the west, the ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organisation] and everyone else for their response”, she wrote.
“They are creating a completely different reality. They even brought Roman as a hostage to the briefing.”
Mr Protasevich said at the press conference that he respects Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, despite not being a supporter, and that he is “aware of the damage” he has caused to the state.
His comments echo those he made in a state TV appearance 10 days after his arrest. At that time, a tearful Mr Protasevich, again claiming to be speaking of his own free will, described his respect for Mr Lukashenko, who he said behaves like a man with “balls of steel”.
The journalist’s father, Dmitry Protasevich, claimed that the interview was the result of “abuse, torture and threats”.
Franak Viacorka, an adviser to Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, similarly claimed in a tweet that Mr Protasevich is a “political prisoner” of Lukashenko’s autocratic regime, and compared his interview to the works of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.
The EU is said to be preparing a number of additional sanctions against Belarus after the arrests of Mr Protasevich and his 23-year-old Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who is also being held in the eastern European country.
The couple were aboard a Ryanair plane travelling between Greece and Lithuania, and were arrested after it made a forced landing in Minsk in what national leaders have called a “state hijacking”.
Britain has responded to the incident by suspending the air permit for the Belarus national carrier, Belavia.
Watch: Flights over Belarus banned