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Video Statement By Belarusian Blogger Contains All The Hallmarks Of Forced Soviet-Era 'Confessions'

One day after his dramatic arrest at a Minsk airport, Belarusian blogger Raman Pratasevich appeared in a video and admitted to inciting mass unrest. But his shaken look and signs of possible mistreatment harked back to forced confessions that remain common in parts of the former U.S.S.R.
One day after his dramatic arrest at a Minsk airport, Belarusian blogger Raman Pratasevich appeared in a video and admitted to inciting mass unrest. But his shaken look and signs of possible mistreatment harked back to forced confessions that remain common in parts of the former U.S.S.R.

MOSCOW -- It bore all the hallmarks: the emotionless expression, the monotone delivery, the nondescript backdrop, the tightly clasped hands.

And the method of its dissemination was another sign: It spread on pro-government social-media channels before state TV picked it up and cited it as evidence of the dissident's guilt.

When Belarusian blogger Raman Pratasevich appeared in a video on May 24 and admitted to inciting mass unrest, the day after he was snatched from a commercial flight forced to land in Minsk, relatives, friends, and fellow activists had little doubt that it was the kind of forced confession they had all seen before. (RFE/RL has decided not to publish or link to the video.)

Pratasevich's father, Dzmitry, alleged that marks on the blogger's face were evidence he had been beaten into submission.

"In the video, the traces of beatings are clearly visible and he is noticeably nervous," Dzmitry Pratasevich told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, on May 25. "He is not speaking in his own words."

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The words, in any case, are suspiciously formulaic. The 26-year-old blogger, who fled the country fearing arrest in 2019, states that Belarusian law enforcement acted in "a totally lawful and adequate way," and pledges to provide "confessional statements" relating to anti-state activities.

From Vilnius, where Pratasevich was headed from Athens when the Ryanair flight he was on was diverted and escorted to Minsk by a Belarusian warplane, exiled opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya told RFE/RL that the blogger was a "hostage" of strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime.

Tsikhanouskaya has had personal experience with the tools the state is accused of deploying to extract forced confessions. Two days after the disputed August 2020 presidential election that sparked Belarus's political crisis, and which Tsikhanouskaya's supporters say she won, she appeared in a grainy video reading a text that called on Belarusians to cease protests and seemed to endorse the official result of the election by saying that "the people have made their choice" -- a baffling reversal from her earlier claims that the vote, in which Lukashenka claimed a landslide victory, was rigged.

A close aide and fellow opposition figure, Maryya Kalesnikava, said shortly afterward that Tsikhanouskaya had made the statement under duress while being kept behind closed doors for several hours at the Central Election Committee building, where she had gone to file a complaint about alleged vote-rigging.

Kalesnikava, who is now jailed and faces up to 12 years in prison if convicted on extremism and coup plotting charges that the United States has called a fabrication and an outrage, said that Tsikhanouskaya had been held in a room alone with two security officials, and that her colleagues and lawyer had been unable to contact her.

Tsikhanouskaya has never explained the exact circumstances behind the video, but has said that threats made against her and her family convinced her to leave for Lithuania shortly after that visit to the Central Election Committee.

Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya
Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya

"They can use both psychological but also physical pressure in order to force you to say what they want," Tsikhanouskaya told RFE/RL. "We don't know what is happening to Raman, but we can't exclude he might be tortured there."

In his own statement, Pratasevich gives assurances similar to the protagonists of other video confessions released on a regular basis by law enforcement organs in Belarus, Russia, and other countries where authoritarian governments use them to persuade viewers that arrestees are unharmed and that they harbor regrets about their alleged actions.

Instances of forced confessions have been recorded around the world, and some coerced defendants have secured release from prison and even compensation for the treatment that led to their false statements under duress, with many cases citing the right to fair trial endorsed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellite states the practice was widespread, with written statements by defendants extracted by intelligence operatives and interrogators. The methods involved were most famously put to use in the so-called Moscow Trials of the 1930s, when perceived enemies of dictator Josef Stalin were placed in the dock and pleaded guilty to working against the state.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, some of the republics that emerged as independent countries maintained political systems heavily influenced by the security services. In some cases, they kept not only their old practices but also the names that had become synonymous with arbitrary justice and the suppression of dissent.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)
Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)

The agency that spearheads that campaign in Belarus -- ruled since 1994 by Lukashenka, who has been dubbed "Europe's last dictator" -- has not changed its Soviet-era name, the State Security Committee (KGB). Government critics and human rights groups say that it has also maintained a focus on forced confessions as part of its modus operandi.

"It's horrible to imagine what they must do to a person, and what threats they must make for him to agree to record something like this," Kira Yarmysh, a Russian opposition activist and spokeswoman for imprisoned Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny, wrote on Twitter, describing the Pratasevich video as "heart-wrenching."

In Russia, Belarus's ally and longtime patron, forced confessions were used to particularly chilling effect during a recent series of crackdowns against associates and supporters of Navalny, the most prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin.

In just one example from January, a state TV channel in Nizhny Novgorod released a video statement in which Navalny ally Roman Tregubov renounces the opposition leader and urges Russians to boycott anti-government protests.

Tregubov later told RFE/RL that the clip had been recorded under duress in police custody.

Roman Tregubov (file photo)
Roman Tregubov (file photo)

Tregubov’s lawyer, Aleksandr Karavayev, later wrote in a Facebook post that his client had received a visit from police and officers of the Federal Security Service, who "scared him with a whole mess of felony charges and described the horrors they would visit upon his future."

Just five days before Tregubov’s arrest, Russian investigators had published several videos featuring apologies and acts of contrition from protesters accused of assaulting state officials during protests on January 23. In one video, popular blogger Konstanti Lakeyev looks into the camera and vows never again to raise a hand against the police.

Pratasevich remains in pretrial detention and appears to have had no opportunity to retract his words or confirm that they were recorded under pressure.

But the video, published by Minsk-based social-media accounts and later broadcast on state TV channels in Belarus and Russia, has become a key element in Lukashenka's effort to shape the narrative around the events of May 23, when Belarusian authorities cited a later disproved bomb threat as they scrambled a fighter jet to escort the Ryanair flight to the Minsk airport and promptly took Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, into custody.

"This is the very same technique they used to get fake confessions out of people during the Stalin rule," Kira Tverskaya, a Moscow-based journalist working in the video game industry, wrote on Twitter. "It happened to my great-grandfather, and seeing it in action in 2021.... No words."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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