News World Family of arrested journalist and girlfriend fear ‘torture’ as Belarus faces flight ban
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Family of arrested journalist and girlfriend fear ‘torture’ as Belarus faces flight ban

There are fears Roman Protasevich, 26, and Sofia Sapega, 23, are being tortured. Photo: Getty/ Instagram
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As Belarus faces international outrage over the forcing down of a jetliner and arrest of a journalist and his girlfriend, family of the couple fear the pair are being tortured by authorities.

Airlines have re-routed flights to avoid Belarus’s airspace and Belarusian planes are facing a possible ban from Europe.

European Union members accused Belarus of hijacking and piracy over the interception of the Ryanair plane as it crossed the country on a flight from Greece to Lithuania, and diplomats said France, Ireland and Estonia would raise the incident at a private meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday.

“The behaviour of the Belarus regime is outrageous, illegal, and completely unacceptable… we also condemn this kind of dangerous interference in civil aviation,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko must pay a “bitter price” for detaining journalist Roman Protasevich.

Journalist and girlfriend face ‘torture’

New video released of 26-year-old Protasevich –who was pulled from the passenger plane after Belarus scrambled a warplane to escort it to Minsk – shows the journalist confessing to having organised anti-government demonstrations.

In the video, the journalist can be seen seated at a desk in a dark hooded sweatshirt.

“I can state that I don’t have any health issues, including diseases of the heart or any other organs. Police officers are treating me properly and according to the law,” he says, adding that he had “confessed to organising mass protests in Minsk”.

His girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, also remains in custody.

The couple had been on holiday in Greece and were flying to Lithuania when the plane they were on was unexpectedly diverted.

Witnesses have told media how a panicked Protasevich started giving his mobile phone and other personal items to his girlfriend after realising the plane was headed for Belarus.

Police raided the plane on the tarmac in Minsk and arrested the couple.

Ms Sapega’s parents said they now fear their daughter would be tortured by authorities.

“I know that the place where she is held now sadly has a really poor reputation, with accounts of a certain kind about what goes on there,” her dad, Andrey Sapega, told the Sun newspaper.

“However strong she is, the guys now dealing with the destiny of my daughter, they can break anyone.”

He added: “I am very, very concerned for Sofia.”

“Why do the Belorussian authorities need her now?  As a way of putting pressure on Roman? I don’t know, but it’s quite likely.”

Ms Sapega’s mother Anna Dudich told Reuters that her daughter, a 23-year-old student and a Russian citizen who is originally from Belarus, had steered clear of politics.

“My hopes are now probably based on a miracle and on the knowledge that my daughter is definitely not guilty of anything,” Ms Dudich said.

“She simply showed up in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Protesters hold images of Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko (L), Belarus opposition activist Roman Protasevich (C) and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega (R). Photo: Getty

Already there is evidence that Protasevich has been tortured, according to exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

Ms Tsikhanouskaya said it appeared the video showed the journalist had been forced to make a confession.

“He said that he was treated lawfully but he’s clearly beaten and under pressure. There is no doubt that he was tortured. He was taken hostage,” she told a news conference in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.

Belarus did not immediately comment on the torture allegation but has consistently denied abusing detainees.

Rights groups have documented hundreds of cases of what they describe as abuse and forced confessions during a crackdown on pro-democracy opponents of Mr Lukashenko since last year.

Human Rights Watch has reported on claims by inmates that they have faced punishment by electric shock, beatings and rape.

Lukashenko not deterred by sanctions

Mr Lukashenko, whose opponents accuse him of rigging an August 2020 election, has so far shrugged off foreign sanctions, which mostly consist of barring various officials from travelling or doing business in the United States and EU.

The Belarusian leader enjoys financial and security support from Russia.

The White House said US President Joe Biden would discuss the incident with Russian President Vladimir Putin at their summit next month but added the United States did not believe Russia had played any role in it.

Belarus has maintained the Ryanair flight was diverted because of a bomb threat and that police who raided the plane only did so because of the safety scare.

Belarusian state media have reported that Mr Lukashenko personally ordered the flight to be intercepted.

On Tuesday, Belarusian authorities released a transcript of a conversation between the plane and an air traffic controller in which the pilot repeatedly questioned information about the threat before agreeing to land at Minsk.

The transcript, which Reuters could not independently verify, differs from excerpts previously released by Belarus state TV, which had suggested the pilot had asked to land in Minsk, rather than that the controller had advised him to do so.

In response to the incident, the European air traffic control agency Eurocontrol recommended that EU and UK carriers that fly over Belarus should re-route via the Baltic states.

The UK also said it was banning Belarusian airlines from entering its airspace.

European Union leaders at a summit on Monday had called for airlines based in the 27-member bloc to halt flights over Belarusian airspace, which is along a major corridor connecting Europe and Asia and earns hard currency from overflight rights.

Belgium’s Charles Michel, who chairs EU summits, tweeted “Europe in action,” with a picture of a flight tracker map of the continent showing no planes flying over Belarus.

-with AAP