MINSK -- Belarusian authorities have paraded detained opposition blogger Raman Pratasevich at a news conference during which they gave their disputed version of why they diverted a Ryanair commercial fight last month that has triggered international condemnation and sanctions.
Pratasevich was placed on stage with four officials, two of whom were in uniform, at the event on June 14, a move the opposition decried as “soul-crushing.”
“No matter what he says, let's not forget: he is a hostage. And the regime is using him as a trophy,” Franak Vyachorka, a senior adviser for Belarusian exiled opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, said in a tweet.
"This is not a press conference but a scene of either Kafka or Orwell," he added.
Several diplomats and reporters left the media briefing in Minsk when Pratasevich, who is being held at a KGB prison in the Belarusian capital, addressed the event.
"We have just walked out. Not taking part when [Pratasevich] is clearly there under duress,” BBC reporter Jonah Fisher tweeted.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.
On May 23, Belarusian authorities scrambled a military jet to escort the Ryanair passenger flight, which was en route from Athens to Vilnius, over its airspace to land in Minsk. Law enforcement immediately arrested the 26-year-old Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.
Belarusian authorities have since released separate videos showing apparent forced confessions by Pratasevich and Sapega, who is a Russian national.
Belarusian authorities, who claimed a dubious bomb threat made it necessary to divert the flight, deny it was a forced landing.
Many countries regard the move as a "state hijacking."
The diversion of the flight between two European Union members outraged the bloc, Britain, and other Western nations, which in response have banned Belarus state carrier Belavia from their airports and have urged airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace, which keeps the country from collecting fees for the overflights.
Last week, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told MEPs the bloc would likely adopt economic sanctions on Belarus later in June.
Pratasevich faces charges of being behind civil disturbances that followed a disputed presidential election in August last year, an offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
He was a key administrator of the Telegram channel, Nexta-Live, which has been covering mass protests denouncing the official results of the election, which handed authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka a sixth presidential term. The opposition says the vote was rigged and that Tsikhanouskaya was the victor.
Lukashenka, who refuses to negotiate with the opposition over stepping down and holding fresh elections, has become an international pariah for directing a brutal postelection crackdown in which almost 30,000 people have been detained, many sentenced to lengthy prison terms, hundreds beaten, several killed, and the free press harassed and almost completely shut down.