Belarus puts activist’s girlfriend on trial after dramatic arrest

Sofia Sapega faces up to six years in jail if convicted on seven criminal charges that include ‘inciting social hatred’.

A woman holds a portrait of opposition journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega during a protest of solidarity with Roman Protasevic at the Belarusian embassy in Riga, Latvia, 25 May 2021. Belarus' opposition journalist Roman Protasevich
A woman holds a portrait of Protasevich and Sapega during a protest in Riga, Latvia [File: Toms Kalnins/EPA]

The Russian girlfriend of Belarusian dissident Roman Protasevich has gone on trial in Minsk, months after their plane was forced to land in the Belarusian capital, according to Belarusian media.

Sofia Sapega, 24, was detained with Protasevich, 26, in May last year when their Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was grounded as it passed over Belarus. The news led to international condemnation, with some European leaders calling the move a “hijacking”.

A court in Belarus on Monday started a closed-door trial against Sapega, who faces seven criminal charges, including “inciting social hatred” and “violence or threats” against police, opposition media outlet Zerkalo said. Sapega faces up to six years in jail.

After her arrest, Sapega cooperated with authorities and appealed to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko for her release.

Sofia Sapega poses for a picture in Gothenburg, Sweden
Sapega poses for a picture in Gothenburg, Sweden [File: Stringer/Reuters]

Protasevich fled to Poland in 2019 from where co-founded and edited the Poland-based online news service, Nexta, which broadcast footage of the mass protests via the Telegram messenger app.

With close to two million subscribers on Telegram, Nexta Live and its sister channel Nexta played a key role in steering and coordinating protesters in 2020, when internet access was often blocked and independent media were heavily restricted.

After their arrests, both Protasevich and Sapega appeared in “confession” videos that their supporters said were recorded under duress and are a common tactic of the regime to pressure critics.

Protasevich remains under house arrest in Belarus awaiting trial. He faces up to 15 years in jail if convicted.

In response to Protasevich and Sapega’s arrests, which led to international outrage, Brussels last year banned Belarusian state carrier Belavia from operating flights to airports in the European Union and discouraged EU-based airlines from flying over Belarus.

The EU and the United States have imposed waves of sanctions on Lukashenko and his allies over the crackdown on the protests that saw thousands arrested and reports of police brutality.

The US, EU, United Kingdom and Canada have joined forces to impose sweeping sanctions on several top Belarusian officials.

The EU has also imposed a series of bruising economic sanctions that target key Belarus exports, including potash – a common fertiliser ingredient – and petroleum products.

Belarusian blogger Roman Protasevich
Protasevich is seen in a pre-trial detention facility in Minsk last year [File: Telegram@Zheltyeslivy/Reuters]
Source: News Agencies