(Moscow) A Belarusian court on Wednesday sentenced Roman Protassevich, a dissident ex-journalist arrested in Belarus in 2021 to eight years in prison after the spectacular interception of an airliner, sparking outcry and Western sanctions against Minsk.
According to the state-run Belta news agency, Stepan Poutilo and Ian Roudik, two other defendants in exile abroad, were sentenced respectively in this case, in absentia, to 20 and 19 years in prison.
They faced a series of charges, including public calls to “seize power”, commit “terrorist acts” and insult the head of state.
On Wednesday evening, Germany criticized this condemnation. “The verdict against Roman Protassevich is yet another example of the brutal actions of those in power in Belarus against democratic forces and independent media,” the German Foreign Office posted on Twitter.
The three convicted in this emblematic case of repression in Belarus work or have worked in the past for the opposition media Nexta.
The latter played a key role in the 2020 protest movement against the re-election in August of the same year of President Alexander Lukashenko, by massively publishing calls for demonstrations and images of police repression.
Roman Protassevich, 27, was arrested on May 23, 2021 with his partner Sofia Sapega when their Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was intercepted by a Belarusian fighter jet, sparking outcry and Western sanctions.
After his arrest, he agreed to cooperate with the investigation and claimed to repent, in videos broadcast by Belarusian public television, recorded “under duress” according to the Belarusian opposition.
“He has been hostage to the regime since the hijacking of the Ryanair flight,” exiled opposition figure Svetlana Tikhanovskaya tweeted on Wednesday.
“When he was kidnapped, he chose to collaborate with the KGB (Belarusian security services, editor’s note). But that did not save him from prison. A lesson for all of us: don’t collaborate with the devil,” Franak Viačorka, an opponent in exile and adviser to Ms. Tikhanovskaya, tweeted on Wednesday.
On Wednesday, Roman Protassevich appeared at the hearing in Minsk, sitting alone in the dock, dark circles under his eyes, according to images released by the Belta agency.
The prosecution had requested twenty years of prison camp for Stepan Poutilo, 19 years for Ian Roudik and ten years for Mr. Protassevitch.
“Protassevich has respected the terms of the cooperation agreement concluded with him. Therefore, the accused will receive less than he could,” prosecutor Natalia Sokolova told Belarusian television in late April.
He has been under house arrest since June 2021 and, according to the prosecution, will remain there until his sentence comes into force if it is confirmed on appeal.
His partner at the time of his arrest, Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen, was previously sentenced to six years in prison. Negotiations are underway between Minsk and Moscow for her to be transferred to Russia to serve her sentence.