Belarus jails girlfriend of dissident seized after forced plane landing

·2 min read

(Reuters) -A Belarusian court on Friday sentenced Sofia Sapega, the girlfriend of a dissident detained after their commercial flight was forced to land in Belarus last year, to six years in prison for inciting social hatred, the Vyasna rights group said.

The 24-year-old Russian citizen was with her boyfriend Roman Protasevich, a dissident blogger critical of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, on a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius in May 2021 when it was diverted to Minsk by Belarusian authorities.

Belarus said at the time it had ordered the plane to land after an anonymous tip-off that there was a bomb onboard. The bomb threat turned out to be false, and Protasevich and Sapega were immediately detained.

Their flight's diversion prompted international outrage and led the European Union and United States to impose more sanctions on Belarus.

"I am sorry for Sofia and her family. No one should suffer from dictatorship," exiled Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya wrote on Twitter after Friday's verdict.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Sapega would get assistance, but declined to comment on the sentence itself.

"She is a citizen of Russia, so in any case, through our diplomats and other channels, we will continue to protect her legitimate interests," he told reporters on a conference call.

Asked, whether he thought the verdict was fair, Peskov said:

"We greatly dislike it when someone comments on the decisions of our courts, so we will not comment the decision of the court in friendly Belarus."

'SIX YEARS FOR BEING IN LOVE'

Russian opposition figures criticised their country for not intervening in the case of Sapega despite claims it is protecting Russians abroad, one of the reasons Moscow has used to justify its military campaign in Ukraine.

"The Russian foreign ministry did not take any steps to get her out of the clutches of Lukashenko," allies of jailed opposition activist Andrei Pivovarov wrote on his Twitter account.

"Six years for being in love (with Protasevich)," Gennady Gudkov, a former lawmaker and member of the liberal opposition, wrote on Twitter. "A rare bastard has seized power in Belarus," he added, referring to Lukashenko.

Protasevich has yet to go on trial and the status of the investigation against him is unclear.

The blogger, who fled Belarus in 2019, had worked as an editor at the Poland-based Nexta Live channel on the Telegram messenger app. The channel, which is openly hostile to Lukashenko, played an important role in broadcasting and coordinating huge opposition protests in 2020.

The mass protests were sparked by anger over what the opposition said was a rigged presidential election that gave Lukashenko his sixth term in power.

Lukashenko denied stealing the election and cracked down on the opposition, whose leading members were jailed or forced to flee.

(Reporting by Reuters; Editing by Mark Trevelyan, Raissa Kasolowsky and Tomasz Janowski)

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