There is a “high probability” that the young journalist detained in Belarus after a plane hijacking is being tortured, the country’s opposition leader has warned.
Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, who fled the country after last summer’s fraudulent election, told a press conference on Monday that she feared for Roman Protasevich’s life.
Mr Protasevic, a 26-year-old blogger, was detained by Belarusian security forces on Sunday after Ryanair flight FR4978 was forcibly diverted by fighter jets to Minsk on its journey from Athens to Vilnius.
Speaking about her fears for his safety, Ms Tikhanouskaya said: “We are really afraid not only for his freedom, but for his life.
“We do not know where he is and in what condition. There is a high probability that at this very moment he is being tortured by the secret service staff.”
Mr Protasevic, who co-founded Nexta, the main opposition platform during last year’s protests, allegedly told fellow passengers on their descent to Minsk that “a death sentence” was awaiting him in Belarus.
He earned the ire of the Belarusian president when Nexta became the most widely-used opposition site during Mr Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown against protesters.
Nexta never coordinated the protests but curated readers’ content and leaks, according to the young journalist.
“We saw that those who had the potential to be a protest leader were either in prison or under surveillance. It was our time to step up,” he told The Independent last August:
A spokesperson for the autocratic president Alexander Lukashenko said he personally dispatched the MiG-29 fighter jets on a mission to force the plane to land.
The hijacking has been met with strong criticism from world leaders and the EU is considering introducing more sanctions as a result of the incident.
Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said members states would discuss bringing sanctions against individuals involved in hijacking, businesses that finance the Lukashenko regime and the country’s aviation sector.
She added that Mr Protasevic must be released immediately.
British foreign secretary Dominic Raab also condemned the forced grounding and arrest, saying the move “appears to be a serious violation of international law on civil aviation”.
On Monday evening, a video of Mr Protsevic was released on social media in which he claimed to be in good health and admitted he was behind “civil disturbances” in Belarus, with commentators noting that it had all the hallmarks of a forced confession.