Warsaw, Poland: Stepan Putilo, the editor of a highly influential Belarusian Telegram channel, told AFP he has received a slew of death threats since his former colleague Roman Protasevich was arrested.
Putilo, who heads up Nexta (“Someone ” in Belarusian), in an interview also urged more action from the international community, calling for total political and economic isolation for Belarus.
Warsaw-based Putilo, who uses the surname Svetlov, said he and his colleagues were afraid that they “could become the next victims” of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime.
“We get hundreds of death threats (saying) that Roman is lucky to have been arrested and that we won’t be arrested but shot dead, that they’re going to blow up our office in Warsaw”, Putilo said.
But he vowed to “keep up the fight”.
Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested on Sunday after their Athens to Vilnius Ryanair flight was diverted and forced to land in Belarus due to a supposed bomb threat.
‘No help is visible’
Protasevich, a 26-year-old journalist, has been campaigning against Lukashenko since his teens and is the editor of another popular Telegram channel.
The EU has reacted by urging the bloc’s airlines not to fly over Belarus and asking member states to ban Belarus’s national flag carrier, Belavia.
It has also warned of more sanctions on top of existing travel bans and asset freezes for key political and law enforcement regime figures.
Putilo said that the arrest “has finally forced the West to commit to more significant measures”.
“For eight months help has been promised but the truth is no help is visible,” he said.
But he added more should be done, calling for complete “international isolation” for Lukashenko.
He said the West should cut “all diplomatic, commercial, and economic contact with Minsk… ignore it on the international scene”.
It should also “block information channels, Belarusian satellite channels, access to news agencies, and even to the SWIFT banking network”.
Online accounts erased
Putilo has had no news about Protasevich since he was arrested but said it was clear to him from the “confession” video that has since been broadcast on Belarusian state television that he was beaten.
“You can see they are trying to cover up the marks, you can kind of see the makeup. But if you look closely at the video and you increase the contrast, as we have, you can see he was beaten and that he has scars and bruises.”
Putilo, 22, and Protasevich co-founded the Nexta feed, a key source of information for members of the opposition in a country where dissidents and journalists are routinely jailed.
The channel has helped foment unprecedented mass protests by giving out details of rally times and locations to its more than 1.2 million followers.
Putilo said that interrogators were probably trying to get Protasevich to identify his sources.
“He’s under pressure, terrible pressure because they use Stalinist methods in Belarus,” he said.
“Fortunately we’ve been able to erase all of Roman’s accounts,” he added.