Belarusian activist Protasevich sentenced to eight years in jail

Dissident journalist, 27, accused of 1,586 crimes, including organising mass riots and calling for sanctions against Belarus.

Belarusian blogger Roman Protasevich
Belarusian blogger Roman Protasevich was detained when a Ryanair plane was forced to land in Minsk in 2021 [File: Telegram@Zheltyeslivy/Reuters]

Roman Protasevich, a dissident journalist who was taken from a plane that was forced to land in Belarus two years ago, has been sentenced to eight years in prison, state news agency BELTA reports.

The 27-year-old had been flying from Greece to Lithuania in May 2021 when the flight was suddenly diverted on the basis of a false bomb alert and landed in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, where he was arrested along with his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.

Western leaders called the move a “hijacking” and have called on Belarus to free Protasevich, a longtime critic of President Alexander Lukashenko and former editor of Nexta, an opposition Telegram account.

Two others behind the Nexta channel, Stepan Putilo and Yan Rudnik, were sentenced in absentia to 20 years and 19 years in prison, respectively.

Protasevich was accused of committing at least 1,586 crimes, BELTA said.

The charges against him included organising mass riots, preparing actions grossly violating public order, calling for sanctions against Belarus, creating or leading an extremist group, and conspiracy to seize power.

Prosecutors had asked for a 10-year sentence for Protasevich.

In May last year, Sapega was sentenced to six years in prison for charges including inciting discord and social hatred.

The circumstances of his arrest prompted outrage and triggered European Union sanctions against Lukashenko.

The president, a former collective farm manager, has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, a year before Protasevich was born.

Protests against Lukashenko grew in 2020 after he was awarded a sixth term in a disputed election and were quickly met with a violent crackdown.

Rights groups said thousands of demonstrators were arrested and many were beaten and tortured by security officials in Belarus, one of Russia’s few allies.

Protasevich is believed to have been coerced by authorities into issuing apologetic statements on state television. As his trial opened in February, he said in a video published by state news that he was “fully guilty”.

He has been under house arrest since June 2021.

Nexta, a popular channel on YouTube and Telegram, played an active role in the 2020 protests. The platform was later banned and declared a “terrorist organisation”.

According to Belarus’s independent Viasna rights group, there are now 1,500 “political prisoners” in the country.

Minsk, isolated for years, has become even more of a hermit internationally after suppressing the protests and allowing Russia to use its territory to launch the invasion of Ukraine on February 24 last year.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies