Belarusian activist Roman Protasevich ‘pardoned by Minsk’
Protasevich had been sentenced to eight years for organising protests and insulting President Lukashenko.
Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian opposition blogger who was arrested in 2021 after his flight was grounded in Minsk, has been pardoned, the state news agency reports.
Belta quoted Protasevich on Monday as telling journalists: “I have literally just signed all the relevant documents stating that I have been pardoned.”
This month, the 28-year-old was sentenced to eight years in prison for offences including inciting “terrorism”, organising mass disturbances and slandering Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
“I am incredibly grateful to the country and, of course, to the president personally for such a decision,” Protasevich said in a video released by Belta. “This is, of course, just great news.”
Protasevich worked for the news agency, Nexta, which reported on the mass protests that followed Lukashenko’s re-election in 2020, which the opposition and the West denounced as rigged.
Nexta’s founder, Stsiapan Putsila, and former editor, Yan Rudik, were sentenced in absentia by the same court to 20 and 19 years, respectively.
Last year, Belarus declared the news agency a “terrorist organisation”.
Protasevich’s arrest prompted international anger and triggered European sanctions against Lukashenko.
The 68-year-old, who once told the Reuters news agency he was “the last and only dictator in Europe”, has ruled Minsk with an iron fist since 1994, using his security forces to intimidate, beat and jail his opponents.
Protasevich was arrested while on a flight from Greece to Lithuania in May 2021 when the plane was diverted to Minsk on a false bomb alert. After being detained, the journalist was shown on state television confessing to involvement in anti-government protests and plotting to topple Lukashenko.
The exiled Belarus opposition said the admissions were false and had been coerced.
Meanwhile, rumours about Lukashenko’s health have spread over the past few weeks.
He was seen looking tired at Russia’s Victory Day parade and has since skipped ceremonies in Minsk.
In light of the speculation, exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya told her supporters to be ready for any chance to turn the country into a democracy.
Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against Lukashenko in 2020’s election before fleeing Belarus for her safety, tweeted: “There are many rumours about the dictator Lukashenko’s health.”
“For us, it means only one thing: we should be well prepared for every scenario,” she said. “To turn Belarus on the path to democracy and to prevent Russia from interfering. We need the international community to be proactive and fast.”
Following Tsikhanouskaya’s comments, a Belarusian state news channel posted a picture of Lukashenko at a central air force command base where he was dressed in a military uniform and appeared to have a bandage on his left hand.