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Belarus parades detained journalist Protasevich at media event

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image captionMr Protasevich sat next to uniformed military chiefs at the briefing

Authorities in Belarus have paraded the detained opposition blogger Roman Protasevich at a news conference in Minsk, where they gave their version of the Ryanair plane diversion of 23 May.

A BBC reporter who was initially at the media briefing says Mr Protasevich, 26, was clearly appearing under duress.

An alleged bomb threat forced the plane to land in Minsk, where passengers Mr Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested.

Belarus denies it was a forced landing.

Mr Protasevich, who is being held at a KGB prison in Belarus’ capital, said he was feeling fine and had not been beaten. He also said he had caused damage to Belarus and now wanted to rectify the situation.

Before his arrest he said he feared a possible death penalty as he has been put on a Belarus terrorism list. And he would anyway face a long prison sentence if found guilty of inciting unrest.

At the briefing on Monday the head of state investigations, Dmitry Gora, said Ms Sapega – who is Russian – had been charged with inciting social discord and enmity. She is also in the KGB jail in Minsk.

The diversion of the Athens-Vilnius flight outraged the EU, UK and other Western nations. They reacted by banning state carrier Belavia from their airports and urging airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace.

Flatly contradicting independent accounts of what happened, Belarus air force chief Igor Golub told the briefing: “There was no interception, no forced diversion from the state border or forced landing of the Ryanair plane.”

Authoritarian Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has cracked down hard on opponents since claiming victory in an August election widely condemned as rigged. Opposition leaders have been jailed or forced into exile.

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image captionTop state officials defended Belarus’s disruption of the Ryanair flight

Detainee’s staged appearance in official show for media

By Jonah Fisher, BBC correspondent in Minsk

As we arrived at the briefing we were handed an annotated map of the route that Ryanair FR4978 took on 23 May. On that day the Belarus authorities insisted the plane divert from its flight plan and land in Minsk.

As we looked over the map for new information, a name card was changed at the front of the room. There would be a new, previously unannounced speaker.

Alongside the five government officials would be Roman Protasevich, the journalist and activist seized off the flight.

Quite what the Belarus authorities hope to achieve by parading Mr Protasevich is far from clear. Their argument remains that diversion of the Ryanair plane had nothing to do with him and was because of an emailed bomb threat.

In recent weeks Mr Protasevich has been put several times in front of TV cameras to toe the official line, confess to his supposed crimes and deny that he’s been mistreated.

With Mr Protasevich having been brought from detention to the briefing, and almost certainly having no say in the matter, we decided to leave. Shortly afterwards several of the foreign diplomats also followed suit.

The Ryanair plane resumed its journey to Lithuania after being kept at Minsk airport for several hours. A Belarusian MiG fighter had escorted it down. No bomb was found, but when passengers reboarded, both Mr Protasevich and Ms Sapega were kept in custody.

Earlier this month, in a tearful appearance on Belarus state TV, Mr Protasevich praised Alexander Lukashenko and admitted attempting to topple him.

Marks were visible on his wrists. Human rights and opposition campaigners say he was tortured.

Mr Protasevich was editor of the opposition Nexta channel on the Telegram messaging app until last year. Nexta had a huge following in Belarus during mass street protests against Mr Lukashenko.

The Belarusian opposition and Western governments say Mr Lukashenko rigged the 9 August election. He is isolated in Europe, but has the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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