Belarus sentences dissident’s girlfriend to six years in prison

Sofia Sapega, whose flight was forced to land in Belarus last year, was convicted for inciting social hatred.

A Belarusian court sentenced Sofia Sapega, the girlfriend of a dissident arrested after their commercial flight was forced to land in Belarus last year, to six years in prison on Friday for inciting social hatred, according to the Viasna Human Rights Center.

The 24-year-old Russian citizen was flying with her boyfriend Roman Protasevich, a dissident blogger critical of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, on a Ryanair flight from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, 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 on board.

The bomb threat turned out to be false, and Protasevich and Sapega were immediately arrested.

The diversion of a commercial flight to arrest the pair prompted international outrage and urged the European Union and United States to impose more sanctions against Belarus.

A woman holds a portrait of Protasevich and Sapega during a protest of solidarity in Riga, Latvia [File: Toms Kalnins/EPA]

“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.

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.

There was no immediate reaction to the verdict from Russian authorities. The Russian General Consulate in the Belarusian city of Brest said one its diplomats attended the court hearing, but made no further comment.

The boyfriend

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 hard on the opposition, whose leading members were jailed or forced to flee abroad.

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