Sunday, 19 May 2024

Belarus Pardons Opposition Activist Who Was Hauled Off a Ryanair Flight, State Media Says

Belarus has pardoned an opposition activist who was arrested in 2021 after the Belarusian government forced the landing of a commercial flight he had been on that was transiting its airspace, state media reported on Monday.

The activist, Roman Protasevich, 28, was the editor of Nexta, a channel on the Telegram messaging app that was instrumental in organizing mass protests against President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko after his disputed election victory in 2020. The details of Mr. Protasevich’s arrest drew international attention.

A Belarusian court in May sentenced Mr. Protasevich to eight years in prison for crimes including acts of terrorism and insulting the president. But on Monday, Belta, the Belarusian state news agency, reported that Mr. Protasevich had told journalists he had been pardoned, calling it “great news.”

Such leniency for someone who had been an active member of the opposition is unusual in Belarus, where, during nearly three decades in power, Mr. Lukashenko has a longstanding pattern of silencing dissent and violently suppressing opponents.

After the decision, Mr. Protasevich said that he was “insanely grateful to the country and personally to the president” for pardoning him, according to a video published by Belta.

Like many Belarusian activists, Mr. Protasevich had fled into exile. But in May 2021, he was on a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania when a Belarusian fighter jet forced the plane to land in Minsk, the Belarusian capital. Security officials arrested him on the tarmac along with his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.

After the arrest, Mr. Protasevich made a confession that aired on state television that included an apology for his actions, which his family said had been forced. His statements included praise for Mr. Lukashenko and an admission about seeking to topple him.

In June 2021, Mr. Protasevich denied that he had betrayed anyone but acknowledged that “many people consider me a traitor” for cooperating with the Belarusian authorities after his arrest.

Ms. Sapega, who was arrested with him, was sentenced to six years in prison in Belarus. Her plea for pardon was rejected.

More than 1,500 people in Belarus are considered to be political prisoners by rights groups and many are said to serve their sentences in dire conditions.

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