The UN rights office on Tuesday called on Belarus to immediately release journalist Roman Protasevich and his companion Sofia Sapega.
The two were arrested on Sunday after Belarus forced a Ryanair flight, which was heading from Greece to Lithuania, to land in its capital Minsk.
“We call for the immediate release of both Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega, both of whom should be allowed to continue to their intended destination in Lithuania,” Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said at a news conference in Geneva.
He said the UN fears for Protasevich’s safety and wants assurances that the journalist is being treated humanely.
“Like so many others, we are shocked by the unlawful arrest, and arbitrary detention of the Belarusian journalist after the Ryanair plane on which he was traveling was forcibly diverted to the Belarus capital Minsk, apparently under false pretenses and with the express purpose of capturing Protasevich,” said Colville.
He said Belarus’ threat of military force and the manner of the journalist’s abduction was “tantamount to an extraordinary rendition.”
Pressed on this, he said there are “a lot of different ways of referring to this: an abduction, extraordinary rendition, and possibly even a state-sponsored hijack,” adding that the exact terminology would likely come out over time.
‘Abuse of state power’
“Such abuse of state power against a journalist for exercising functions that are protected under international law deserves the strongest condemnation,” said Colville.
The spokesman said that targeting a journalist solely for being critical of a government “can never be considered a necessary restriction of freedom of expression.”
It is a violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, he stressed.
Colville said the mere act of organizing a peaceful assembly should never be criminalized under domestic laws, including counterterrorism legislation.
“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,” he said.
Colville said the appearance of Protasevich on Belarus’s state television on Monday night “was not reassuring, given the apparent bruising to his face, and the strong likelihood that his appearance was not voluntary and his ‘confession’ to serious crimes was forced.”
He added that information obtained under coercion cannot be used against Protasevich in any legal proceedings, stressing that forced confessions are prohibited under the UN Convention against Torture.