TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — A court in Belarus convicted a dissident journalist who was arrested after being pulled off a commercial flight that was diverted to the country and sentenced him Wednesday to eight years in prison.
Raman Pratasevich’s dramatic arrest in May 2021 elicited outrage in the West, with some leaders saying the plane’s diversion was tantamount to state-sponsored hijacking.
Belarusian flight controllers ordered the Ryanair jetliner traveling from Greece to Lithuania to land in Minsk, telling the crew there was a bomb threat against the flight. No explosives were found on board once the airliner was on the ground, but Pratasevich, a Belarusian citizen who lived in exile at the time, was detained.
His Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, was also arrested. The plane then was allowed to continue on to its original destination.
In response to the forced diversion, several Western countries imposed a raft of new sanctions and barred their planes from flying over Belarus.
Pratasevich ran Nexta, a Telegram messaging app channel that was widely used by participants in mass protests against the disputed 2020 election that gave authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term in office. He was charged with organizing unrest and plotting to seize power.
Nexta is one of the most well-known opposition outlets. Together with its sister channel, Nexta Live, it has 1.4 million followers.
The founder of the Telegram channel, Stsiapan Putsila, and another editor of the channel, Yan Rudzik, were sentenced in absentia to 20 and 19 years in prison respectfully. Both remain in exile.
After the arrest, Pratasevich went on Belarusian state television several times to confess, denounce the opposition and apologize to Lukashenko — appearances that critics said were made under duress. Both Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sapega, were later released from custody and put under house arrest.
In May 2022, Sapega was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. Three days later, a message on a Telegram channel billed as belonging to Pratasevich sought to distance him from Sapega — saying they had separated long before and that he was married to someone else.
The Associated Press couldn’t independently verify whether the post was freely written by Pratasevich or any of the claims it contained.
Sapega, in the meantime, petitioned Belarusian authorities to extradite her to her home country, Russia, to serve out the remainder of her sentence. The Belarusian government agreed. It wasn’t immediately clear when that might happen.
Belarus’ opposition leader in exile, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, called the sentences to Pratasevich, Putsila and Rudzik “disregard for justice” on the part of “the Belarus regime,” which conducted “a fake trial.”
Pratasevich, Tsikhanouskaya said in a tweet, has “been the regime’s hostage since the Ryanair (plane) hijacking.”
Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.