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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 24, New Delhi, May 29, 2021

High Drama of Arrest In The Air and Forced Confession of Young Belarusian Journalist Raman Pratasevich by Authoritrian President Lukashenko | RG Gidadhubli

Saturday 29 May 2021

by R G Gidadhubli

The news of the arrest of young Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich on 23rd May was highlighted by the global media since he was caught in the Ryanair flight from Greece to Baltic State Lithuania by forcibly diverting the plane to Belarus on the orders of the President of Belarus Lukashenko. As per reports the Belarusian security agents allegedly used a bomb hoax to force the commercial airliner Ryanair carrying Pratasevich to catch and arrest him. Security people promptly took Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega into custody. Fellow passengers were shocked and surprised since the plane was diverted and forced to land in Minsk the capital city of Belarus. They noticed that fellow passenger Raman Pratasevich was trembling and became visibly panicked and were shocked when he said ”They will execute me here." In the background of this incident an effort has been made to highlight not only about Raman and what is happening in Belarus.

Firstly, 26-year-old journalist Raman Pratasevich, was a co-founder and editor in chief of Nexta-Live, a Belarus-focused news channel that had earned a reputation as a trustworthy alternative source of information, but had attracted the ire of Belarus’s authoritarian government. As per reports Nexta used to publish detail information against the Government and also times and places to protestors and demonstrators as to when to meet and also suggestions for countering and avoiding police and instructions to keep the movement peaceful. At the same time Nexta also reported brutal crackdown by the Belarusian authorities, resulting in the arrests of tens of thousands of civilians and shocking scenes of police violence that were made available to the outside world. Equally important is that this media often collected exclusive materials provided from within government circles and also featuring videos that exposed the brutality of strongman leader President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime. Nexta-Live and its logo were declared extremist by a Belarusian court and orders came for its distribution to be restricted.

Secondly, Raman Pratasevich has good record as a professional hard working honest journalist and is also a former recipient of the Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship of Europe. In fact it was a matter of great academic credit that he was being named a winner of the award in 2017-18, when he was still a journalism student at Belarus State University.

Thirdly, as reported by some analysts Pratasevich was placed on a terrorist watch list by Lukashenko and charged with organizing mass disorder, disrupting public order, and inciting social hatred. In fact Pratasevich himself posted a copy of an official Belarusian list of terrorists on which his name appeared but has rejected all the charges as politically motivated. Hence putting his name as a terrorist by the Belarusian Government is wrong and unfair.

Fourthly, as reported by an analyst, Pratesevich had already left Belarus in 2019 to escape pressure from the state authorities, and he left Nexta-Live in September 2020 to work for another popular Telegram channel. Subsequently Pratasevich was working for Belarus of the Brain — another Telegram news channel which was also banned by the government. Thus it is important to note that he has good record for immense work as journalist.

Fifthly as reported by some analyst, Pratasevich had recently moved to Vilnius, where self-exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya is based with whom he has been closely associated with her. In fact Tsikhanouskaya contested the presidential election in Belarus in 2020 in which Lukashenko claimed his victory which is highly contested both in Belarus and outside.

Sixth, Dzmitry Pratasevich, the journalist’s father is a soldier by profession and came to know about the arrest of his son on 24th May from Telegram. In fact the parents of Raman Pratasevich had moved abroad eight months ago to escape to pressure in Belarus and were aware their son was in Greece. Raman had been open about the fact that his parents did not always share his views, and his father admitted to media that "we feared political persecution for our son’s activities." However, Dzmitry Pratasevich appreciated his son’s work, "eventually life showed that he was right.” He admitted and added “As it turns out, all the people who are fighting for freedom and independence in our country are right,” He is candid in stating that Lukashenka’s regime is targeting his son because "the current government is afraid of independent journalists, freedom of speech, afraid that its actions will become known to the world community."

Seventh, as per reports after taking him into custody, on 24th May the Belarusian Government interrogated Raman Pratasevich. Russia analyst Matthew Luxmoore has stated Raman Pratasevich was ill-treated while in custody and was forced to confess to the state authorities. He has reported that Raman appeared in a video and was evident that he was forced to admit to inciting mass unrest and that Belarusian law enforcement authorities acted in "a totally lawful and adequate way," and pledges to provide "confessional statements" relating to anti-state activities. Luxmoore has been candid in stating that Raman Pratasevich had to admit to suit the authorities. In fact the father of Raman was frank in stating on 25th May about his sons confession and "In the video, the traces of beatings are clearly visible and he is noticeably nervous". The words, in any case, are suspiciously formulaic.

Eighth, exiled opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya has told Radio Free Europe that Raman blogger was a "hostage" of strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime. In fact Tsikhanouskaya has had personal experience with the tools the state is accused of deploying to extract forced confessions. In her opinion after the breakup of the former Soviet State, Belarus and some of the republics that emerged as independent countries maintained political systems heavily influenced by the security services and forced confessions are part of its modus operandi. In fact as opined by some analysts, Lukashenka has emerged as "Europe’s last dictator" and forced confessions are part of his modus operandi.

This is all the more evident from the fact that as reported by well known analyst Tom Wesolowsky during the last couple of years and particularly coinciding presidential election in August 2020 more than 33,000 people have been detained, thousands beaten or tortured, and journalists targeted in the government’s crackdown that appears to have intensified in recent months even as large-scale demonstrations have vanished amid growing fear and fatigue. In fact Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, seen by many as the rightful winner of the election, left Belarus for Lithuania after the vote amid threats to herself and her family.

Lastly, there is widespread condemnation by the Western countries of Europe, USA and Canada about the latest incident of forced diversion of the flight and manner in which young journalist Raman Pratasevich was arrested and forced to confess. Many European leaders have already called for expanded sanctions against the regime of Belarusian President Lukashenka, who has led violent and deadly crackdown on dissents in his country during over two decades of his regime and mass protests that broke over the disputed results of last August 2020 presidential election. Moreover the European Union has agreed to impose fresh sanctions against Belarus, including moves to seal off the bloc’s airspace to Belarusian airlines, amid strong Western condemnation over the forced diversion of a commercial airliner on a flight between two EU member states to arrest an opposition journalist. In fact Ryanair’s chief executive has called forced diversion as "state-sponsored hijacking. The British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the UK would suspend the air permit that allows flights in British airspace by the Belarus’s national airline.

It is appreciable that the head of NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has joined the leaders of several EU countries in demanding an investigation into the forced diversion of flight from Athens to Vilnius on 23rd May of a Lithuanian-bound flight to Minsk and arrest of opposition activist and journalist Raman Pratasevich. He has been candid in stating "This is a serious & dangerous incident which requires international investigation.”Similarly the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization has also been critical and said Belarus may have violated a longstanding treaty known as the Chicago Convention, which has governed international air travel since the 1940s.

Thus Belarus president Lukashenko may have to pay a heavy price for his latest action of forced diversion and forced confession of a young journalist who is critical for his authoritarian regime.

May 28, 2021

(Author: Dr R.G.Gidadhubli is Professor and Former Director, Center For Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai, India)

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