Belarus: Journalist Roman Protasevich appears in new video after arrest in Ryanair plane 'hijacking'

Video report by ITV News Correspondent Rohit Kachroo

A journalist and opposition activist arrested after a Ryanair plane was "hijacked" by Belarusian authorities has appeared in a new video.

The aeroplane, which was travelling from Athens to Lithuania, was diverted by Belarusian authorities to land in the country to arrest journalist and opposition activist Roman Protasevich, who helped organise major protests against president Alexander Lukashenko.

Belarus state media said the aircraft was switched to the country's capital, Minsk, following a bomb threat on Sunday.

Authorities released a video on Monday evening showing Mr Protasevich, who is in jail, saying he was in good health and admitted helping to organise mass protests in Minsk last year.

In a video released by Belarusian authorities, journalist and activist Roman Protasevich said he was in good health.

He said in the video: "Good evening, my name is Roman Protasevich. Yesterday, I was detained by officials from the interior ministry in Minsk airport. I'm now in detention centre no.1 in Minsk.

"I can say that I have no health problems, including heart problems or problems with any other organs.

"The attitude of officials towards me is totally correct and in accordance with the law.

"I am also continuing to cooperate with the investigation and confess to organising mass disorder in the city of Minsk."

The UK has told airlines to avoid flying in Belarusian airspace and has suspended the operating permit of Belarusian airline Belavia.

Announcing the move on Monday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: "To ensure the safety of air passengers, I have also issue a notice to airlines to cease overflights of Belarusian airspace and to suspend the operating permit on the Belarusian airline Belavia with immediate effect."

European Union leaders have also agreed new sanctions against Belarus, including a ban on the use of EU air space and airports.

The UK government has called for the release of Mr Protasevich and has threatened further sanctions on the Belarusian government, saying Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko "must be held to account for this outlandish actions".

What can the government do about this? Watch ITV News Political Correspondent Shehab Khan's analysis:

The forced landing has caused outrage with Ireland's Foreign Affairs Minister saying it was "state-sponsored aviation piracy" and Ryanair's CEO calling it "state-sponsored hijacking".

Belarusian opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against Alexander Lukashenko in the 2020 election told ITV News earlier on Monday she believed Mr Protasevich was being tortured.

She said at the time: "We still don’t know where he is. His lawyer couldn’t find him yet and wasn’t allowed to see him but for sure we know how cruel our KGB is and we suppose that he is being tortured at this moment. 

"It is typical because we see how people that were jailed because of political motivation were held in our jails.

"They are tortured, they are’s awful what’s happening with them in jails.

"For nine months already, my heart is bleeding every day because thousands of people are in jail and two more have been detained."

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab condemned the incident and the arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich, saying it was "a shocking assault on civil aviation and an assault on international law".

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab condemns the Belarusian regime

"The UK calls for his (Mr Protasevich's) immediate release and the release of all other political prisoners in Belarus".

Mr Raab, who threatened further sanctions, added the regime had "engaged in a particularly calculating and cynical ploy" saying it was "behaviour which was as dangerous as it is deceitful".

"The UK is working with our allies on a coordinated response, including further sanctions."

Mr Raab also called for the International Civil Aviation Organisation to meet "urgently to consider the regime’s flouting of the international rules safeguarding civil aviation.”

There has been widespread condemnation of the Belarusian government's actions. Credit: AP

The organisation said they were "strongly concerned" by the incident which could contravene the Chicago convention - a landmark document which established core principles around air travel.

The Shadow Foreign Secretary called for sanctions against the Belarusian government saying "we've effectively seen a plane hijacked and a passenger, a journalist, kidnapped".

"We ought to be coordinating with partners in the EU and elsewhere in order to coordinate further sanctions", Lisa Nandy told ITV News.

She added the UK should think about "blocking the Belarusian state airline from flying to the United Kingdom and British planes from flying over Belarusian airspace.

"The events of the last few days tell you that is not a safe or wise thing to do".

She said the Foreign Secretary should "summon the ambassador in order to demand the release of the journalist and many others who have been detained under this regime for speaking out about what is happening."

Why was the flight forced to land?

The Ryanair flight was travelling from Athens to Lithuania when it was switched to Belarus' capital, Minsk, following a reported bomb threat.

Once the flight had landed Raman Pratasevich, an activist and journalist who has helped organise major protests against Belarus' president Alexander Lukashenko, was arrested.

Mr Pratasevich, who had fled the country for Poland, faces charges that could carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

A spokesman said President Lukashenko personally ordered that a MiG-29 fighter jet accompany the plane to an airport in Minsk.

The presidential press service said the bomb threat was received while the plane was over Belarusian territory. Officials later said no explosives were found on board.

Earlier, Ireland's Foreign Affairs Minister called for an independent inquiry into the incident, which he called "state-sponsored aviation piracy".

Simon Coveney said he supported the idea of closing Belarusian airspace.

"I certainly think that that would be a very strong response and in principle I have no issue with that".

President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko has been warned there will be ‘consequences’ following the arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich Credit: Sergei Sheleg/BelTA Pool Photo via AP

"We cannot allow this incident to pass on the basis of warnings or strong press releases.

"I think there has to be a real edge to the sanctions that are applied on the back of this, so that we're sending a very strong signal that EU airlines cannot be targeted by state-sponsored aviation piracy, which is essentially what's happened here".

There has been widespread political condemnation from the US, Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland and the Czech Republic, with many calling for the suspension of all overflights.

Asked whether sanctions on sovereign debt, potash and oil companies were within the scope of possible sanctions, Mr Raab said: “We won’t take anything off the table”

Riot police detain a protester during an opposition rally over Alexander Lukashenko. Credit:

Mr Raab also said the “proximity of the relationship between Minsk and Moscow” meant Russia could have been involved and the incident could not have taken place without Russia being aware.

Mr Protasevich was a co-founder of the Nexta TV channel which was declared extremist by the authorities last year after helping to organise mass demonstrations against Belarus President Lukashenko.

He subsequently fled to Poland and currently faces charges which could carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

Belarus state media said Mr Lukashenko personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the flight he was on to Minsk after a bomb threat was received while it was over Belarus territory.

Officials later said no explosives had been found on board while the deputy air force commander said the plane’s crew made the decision to land in the Belarus capital.