A dissident journalist arrested when Belarus diverted his flight has said in a video from prison that he was set up by an unidentified associate.
The footage of Roman Protasevich was part of an hour-long TV programme aired late on Wednesday by the state-controlled ONT channel.
In the film, the 26-year-old is also shown saying that protests against Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko are now pointless amid a tough crackdown, and suggesting the opposition wait for a better moment.
A top associate of Mr Protasevich said the journalist was clearly speaking under duress.
The TV programme claimed Belarusian authorities were unaware Mr Protasevich was on board the Ryanair jet en route from Athens to Vilnius when flight controllers diverted it to Minsk on May 23 citing a bomb threat.
No bomb was found after the landing, but Mr Protasevich was arrested along with his Russian girlfriend.
The flight’s diversion outraged the European Union, which responded by barring the Belarusian flag carrier from its skies, telling European airlines to skirt Belarus and drafting new sanctions against key sectors of the Belarusian economy.
Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet nation of 9.3 million with an iron fist for more than a quarter of a century, has accused the West of trying to “strangle” his country with sanctions.
Belarus has been rocked by months of protests fuelled by his re-election to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that was widely seen as rigged.
He responded with an increasingly harsh crackdown. More than 35,000 people have been arrested since the protests began, with thousands beaten.
Mr Protasevich, who left Belarus in 2019, has become a leading critic of Mr Lukashenko. He ran a popular channel on the Telegram messaging app that played a key role in organising the huge anti-government protests and was charged with inciting mass disturbances — accusations that carry a 15-year prison sentence.
Mr Lukashenko last week accused him of fomenting a “bloody rebellion”.
Speaking in the ONT film, Mr Protasevich acknowledged the protests have faltered and argued that the opposition should wait until economic problems create broad public discontent.
“We need to wait until the economic situation worsens… and people take to the street for a mug of soup, to put it bluntly,” he said.
Mr Lukashenko has defended the flight diversion as a legitimate response to a bomb threat. The ONT programme appeared designed to back that contention by claiming authorities were unaware Mr Protasevich was on the plane when they diverted it.
In the video, the journalist said he put a notice about his travel plans on a chat with associates 40 minutes before his departure. He alleged that the bomb threat could have been issued by someone with whom he had a personal conflict.
He said the perceived ill-wisher — who he did not name — had links with opposition-minded hackers who have attacked Belarusian official websites and issued bomb threats in the past.
“The first thing I thought was that I have been set up,” he said.
“When the plane was on a landing path, I realised that it’s useless to panic,” he added. Once the plane taxied to a parking spot, he described seeing heavily armed special forces waiting.
“It was a dedicated Swat unit — uniforms, flak jackets and weapons,” he said.
Last month, he said he had a rift with Franak Viachorka, an adviser to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate in the August presidential election who left after the vote for Lithuania under official pressure.
Mr Viachorka and Mr Protasevich both accompanied Ms Tsikhanouskaya on a visit to Greece in May.
Asked about the video, Mr Viachorka told the Associated Press Mr Protasevich now is “a hostage under pressure” and insisted they have maintained friendly ties.
A day after his arrest, Mr Protasevich appeared in a video from detention that was broadcast on Belarusian state TV.
Speaking rapidly and in a monotone, he said he was confessing to staging mass disturbances.
His parents, who now live in Poland, said the confession seemed to be coerced.
In the ONT film, he said he tried to stay away from his girlfriend after the landing, hoping that authorities would not arrest her.
Sofia Sapega did not feature in the new TV programme but she was shown in a video from prison last week, confessing to running a channel that revealed personal data about Belarusian security officers.