JOE Biden slammed the arrest of Belorussian journalist Raman Pratasevich as “outrageous” after a “confession” video was “made under duress.”
The president also called the removal and arrest of the journalist “a direct affront to international norms,” in a statement released on Monday.
“The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms both the diversion of the plane and the subsequent removal and arrest of Mr. Pratasevich,” the statement says.
“This outrageous incident and the video Mr. Pratasevich appears to have made under duress are shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press.
“The United States joins countries around the world in calling for his release, as well as for the release of the hundreds of political prisoners who are being unjustly detained by the Lukashenka regime.”
Earlier in the day Pratasevich, who was dragged off a hijacked plane, appeared in a “confession” video saying he is in good health and acknowledging his role in organizing mass disturbances last year.
The 26-year-old journalist was detained when a Ryanair plane was forced to land in Minsk on Sunday.
“I am in Detention Center No1 in Minsk. I can say that I have no health problems, including with my heart or any other organs,” he said in the video.
“The attitude of employees towards me is as correct as possible and according to the law. I continue cooperating with investigators and am confessing to having organized mass unrest in the city of Minsk.”
The comments were immediately dismissed by his allies as made under duress, adding that he was almost certainly being tortured.
“This is how Raman looks under physical and moral pressure. I demand the immediate release of Raman and all political prisoners,” a leader of Belarusian opposition, Sviatlana Thiskanouskaya, wrote on Twitter.
In his statement, Biden also said that he stands with Thiskanouskaya, Pratasevich, and other “Belarusians fighting for basic rights.”
Appearing on several channels of the Telegram messaging app in the Monday video, Protasevich says he is in a pre-trial detention facility in Minsk.
Though he denies having any health issues, he appears to have a small black spot on his forehead.
An hour after the video emerged online, European Union leaders agreed to impose more sanctions on Belarus, including economic ones.
They also called on their airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace and authorized work to ban Belarusian airlines from European skies and airports, a spokesman said.
Meeting in Brussels, the 27 national leaders of the bloc demanded an immediate release of Pratasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, as well as an investigation by the International Organization for Civilian Aviation into the incident on Sunday.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, 66, has faced the biggest challenge of his nearly 27-year rule from protesters who took to the streets after he was declared the winner of an election last year.
Protesters allege that the election was rigged.
About 35,000 people have been detained since the start of regular demonstrations in August 2020.
Lukashenko denies electoral fraud and has accused the West of sponsoring the protests.
Pratasevich’s arrest came after Belarusian flight controllers told the plane he was aboard’s crew that there was a bomb threat as it passed through Belarus airspace, and ordered it to land.
Pratasevich and his girlfriend were detained when the plane touched down.
Despite the pretext for forcing the plane to land being a bomb threat, no explosive was found by the Belarus authorities.
Passengers described Pratasevich’s shock when he realized the plane was going to Minsk.
“He freaked out when the pilot said the plane is diverted to Minsk. He said there’s death penalty awaiting him there,” passenger Marius Rutkauskas said after the plane finally arrived in Vilnius.
Pratasevich was a co-founder of the Telegram messaging app’s Nexta channel, which played a prominent role in helping organize anti-Lukashenko protests over the past year.
Belarus authorities have labeled the channel “extremist” and charged Pratasevich in absentia of inciting mass riots and fanning social hatred.