Belarus: UN human rights office calls for ‘immediate release’ of Roman Protasevich

On Sunday, Roman Protasevich was flying on a Ryanair jet from Greece to Lithuania which was forcibly diverted to the Belarusian capital Minsk, “apparently under false pretenses and with the express purpose of capturing him”, said OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville.

The manner, through threat of military force, in which Mr. Protasevich was abducted from the jurisdiction of another State and brought within that of Belarus, “was tantamount to an extraordinary rendition”, he added.

Mr. Colville said that such blatant abuse of power against a journalist for exercising his rights that are protected under international law merited the strongest condemnation possible.

An ‘astonishing episode’

Calling for his immediate release, the spokesperson described Mr. Protasevich’s detention and the circumstances surrounding it as an “astonishing episode” that constitutes a new phase in the country’s campaign of repression against journalists and civil society in general.

He explained that penalizing a journalist just for being critical of the government went against freedom of expression and is a violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“Under human rights law, the mere act of organizing a peaceful assembly should never be criminalized under domestic laws, including counterterrorism laws, and the arrest or detention of someone as punishment for the legitimate exercise of their rights to freedom of opinion and expression and freedom of assembly, is considered arbitrary”, Mr. Colville underscored.

He added that the arbitrary arrest is a sign of an extremely worrying escalation in the crackdown of dissenting voices, not just of journalists but also of Belarusian human rights defenders and other civil society actors, including those living abroad.

The spokesperson emphasized as well that the forced landing of the Ryanair plane terrorized passengers on board and exposed them to unnecessary danger, in violation of their human rights.

Fears of torture

Mr. Colville said OHCHR feared for the dissident journalist’s safety and is seeking assurances that he is being treated humanely and will not be subjected to ill-treatment or torture.

“His appearance on state TV last night was not reassuring, given the apparent bruising to his face, and the strong likelihood that his appearance was not voluntary, said the OHCHR official, and that the “confession” had been under duress.

“Such forced confessions are prohibited under the Convention against Torture”, said Mr. Colville, briefing reporters in Geneva. The concern extends also to Mr. Protasevich’s girlfriend, Sofia Sapaga, who has also reportedly been arbitrarily arrested.