British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned Belarus that the country’s actions “will have consequences” after it released a video of arrested dissident Roman Protasevich that Johnson said was “deeply distressing.”
In a video released by Belarusian authorities on Monday evening, Protasevich appeared to admit he was involved in organising mass protests in Minsk last year.
Seated at a table with his hands folded in front of him and speaking quickly, the 26-year-old activist, journalist, and prominent Lukashenko critic said he was in satisfactory health and his treatment in custody was “maximally correct and according to law.”
“The video of Roman Protasevich makes for deeply distressing viewing,” Johnson wrote in a tweet on Tuesday.
“As a journalist and a passionate believer in freedom of speech I call for his immediate release,” he wrote.
“Belarus’ actions will have consequences.”
Johnson’s comments came after one of his Cabinet ministers said there was reason to suspect the statement by Protasevich was not “offered voluntarily.”
“I don’t think it would come as any surprise [if the statement had been coerced]. But I’m not in a position to tell you exactly what our latest intelligence is on the coercion or not of this,” Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey told Sky News.
“But all I can say is the behaviour of the Belarus regime does not lend itself to think in any way that this statement was offered voluntarily,” she said.
Protasevich and his girlfriend, 23-year-old Russian student Sofia Sapega, were arrested after their Ryanair flight from Athens, Greece to Vilnius, Lithuania was ordered to land in the Belarusian capital Minsk.
The Irish airline said that Belarusian flight controllers had told the crew there was a bomb threat against the plane, and a Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane.
The UK instructed the Civil Aviation Authority on Monday to request airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace to ” keep passengers safe,” with the European Union following suit shortly after.
Both the UK and the EU have summoned their respective Belarusian ambassadors, and said they would consider further sanctions.
The UK’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the sanctions may include the suspension of energy pipelines in Belarus.
U.S. President Joe Biden said on Monday that he welcomes the EU’s decision to consider sanctions, and that he had ordered his administration to “develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible.”
Raab said on Monday that while the situation was unclear, it was difficult to believe that the incident would have happened “without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the idea on Tuesday, attributing it to anti-Russian sentiment.
Peskov added that Moscow hoped Sapega would soon be released provided she had not broken any laws.
Aside from Protasevich and Sapega, three other passengers left the plane at Minsk on Sunday. Initial assertions, without evidence, from a Belarusian activist that the three passengers had been Russian passport holders turned out to be false.
One Lithuanian official told Reuters that the three passengers who disembarked at Minsk included two Belarusian citizens and one Greek citizen.
Ivan Pentchoukov, PA, and Reuters contributed to this report.