Belarusian President Lukashenko has pardoned Roman Protasevich, a journalist arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison after the Ryanair plane was forced to land.
“I just signed documents confirming that I was pardoned,” Protasevich told the Belarusian Belta news agency on May 22. “I am extremely grateful to the country and the president for this decision. This is great news.”
Protasevich, a former editor of the Polish news agency Nexta, was arrested in May 2021 and indicted for allegedly helping to coordinate protests against President Alexander Lukashenko in 2020.
To catch Protasevich, Belarus sent fighter jets, forcing a Ryanair flight from Athens, Greece, to the capital Vilnius, Lithuania, to divert to Minsk. Protasevich, 28, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, two of more than 170 people on board, were arrested after the plane made an emergency landing.
Journalist Roman Protasevich at a press conference in Minsk, Belarus, June 2021. Photo: AFP
Many Western countries accused the Belarusian government of “hijacking” a European airliner and demanded Protasevich’s release. European Union (EU) leaders also agreed to suspend air routes with Belarus and impose further economic sanctions.
However, Belarus announced that it was taking steps to ensure the safety of the Ryanair flight after receiving a warning of an onboard bomb. Russia also expressed confidence in Belarus’ interpretation.
Earlier this month, a Belarusian court sentenced Protasevich to eight years in prison. He was placed under house arrest after the trial.
During his trial in February, Protasevich said he was “absolutely guilty”. The two operators of Nexta’s Telegram channel, Stepan Putilo and Yan Rudnik, were sentenced in absentia to 20 and 19 years, respectively.
The charges include publicly calling for trouble, organizing terrorist attacks, insulting the president and spreading misinformation about Belarus.
Protests in Belarus lasted more than six weeks in mid-2020 after Alexander Lukashenko, the 26-year-old ruler, announced his re-election with more than 80% of the vote. The opposition in Belarus and the EU has not recognized the election results, claiming that the vote was rigged.
Nexta, a popular YouTube and Telegram channel, played an important role in the protests. This channel has been banned in Belarus and is considered a “terrorist organization”.
Huyen Le (according to AFP)