(NEW YORK) — The mother of Roman Protasevich, the blogger seized by Belarus from the Ryanair flight it forcibly diverted to Minsk on Sunday, said she believes he has been tortured in detention and made a desperate plea for the international community to help save him.
“I ask the whole world, I ask with a mother’s tears, mother’s heart, hear me please, save him!” Natalya Protesevich said in a phone interview with ABC News on Tuesday from Poland. “Please, save my son. They will kill him. They will kill him.”
Belarusian state media aired a video on Monday evening showing Protasevich for the first time since his arrest and in which he makes an apparent confession to charges of inciting riots.
The video has attracted condemnation internationally, including from President Joe Biden. From their home in Poland, Protasevich’s parents watched it in agony.
His mother said in the video it was clearly visible that makeup had been applied around Protasevich’s eyes to conceal bruises from beating. She said that his nose was bent and his teeth may have been knocked out. She said she feared there were also signs he had been strangled.
“I know how my child looks, I know the features of his face. And so what they have forced him to say, that he has not had any violence do to him, that is a total lie,” she said. “It was said by him only under the most powerful pressure.”
Protasevich, 26, was arrested along with his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, after Belarus forced the Ryanair flight to land in its capital on Sunday. The flight took off from Athens, carrying 121 passengers bound for Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius. But when it was over Belarus, air traffic controllers contacted the airliner, informing the pilot there was a “security threat” against the flight and instructing it to land.
A Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was sent to escort the plane to Minsk.
The extraordinary lengths that Belarusian authorities went to seize Protasevich reflects the influence he has had on the mass protests that broke out against Belarus’ authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko last summer.
Protasevich founded a news channel on the messaging app Telegram called NEXTA. The channel played a crucial role in the peaceful protests that began after Lukashenko declared victory in a contested election in August.
NEXTA, which is based in Warsaw, helped coordinate the protests, often telling demonstrators where to gather and how to avoid police, who used savage violence against them. It also posted videos of the demonstrations and of the police violence.
“They accuse him of terrorism — what terrorism?” said Natalya Protasevich. “He simply showed the truth! He simply showed the whole world — not only the Belarusian people — but the whole world, he showed what is happening, the unfairness of those elections.”
Protasevich was still a teenager when he co-founded the channel with another blogger, but it grew to become highly influential even before the protests, receiving tips and stories about alleged corruption inside the regime. NEXTA and its sister channel NEXTA Live have over two million subscribers.
Protasevich left NEXTA in 2020 and founded his own Telegram channel that has also become popular.
Belarus’ authorities put Protasevich on a terrorism watchlist and opened criminal cases against him on charges of inciting hatred and organizing mass disorder, offenses that carry maximum sentences of 12 and 15 years in prison, respectively.
“My son is a hero,” Natalya Protasevich said. “Of course, as a mother I really worried. But I understood very well of course, like he himself would say to me: ‘Mama, if not me, then who? My profession is a journalist — I must cover these events. I must get the truth to the people.”
Lukashenko survived the protests and in recent weeks authorities have launched a wave of intense repression, targeting journalists in particular. A court in western Belarus on Wednesday sentenced several activists and bloggers critical of Lukashenko to long prison sentences.
European Union countries on Monday moved to impose new economic sanctions on Belarus and also banned its state airline from Europe over the hijacking and Protasevich’s arrest. The bloc also told European airlines to avoid flying over Belarusian airspace. Biden has also said he has asked his team to prepare options for punishing Lukashenko’s regime.
Flight radars showed Belarus’ airspace was nearly empty on Monday. But although the international reaction has been intense, Western countries’ options appear limited for pressuring Lukashenko, who has already faced repeated sanctions.
“Of course, I am grateful,” said Natalya Protasevich, “but I will dare to ask for more. I really beg, I’m simply screaming — my heart is screaming, my soul is screaming.”
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