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Belarus pardons opposition blogger arrested after plane’s forced landing

Belarusian activist Roman Protasevich takes part in a briefing for journalists and diplomats organized by the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Belarus in Minsk on June 14, 2021. (AFP/Getty Images)
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Roman Protasevich, a dissident blogger arrested in 2021 after Belarusian authorities forced his flight to divert from its route and land in Minsk, was pardoned on Monday, Belarusian state news agency Belta reported.

Protasevich co-founded Nexta, an influential Telegram channel that was a major source of news about opposition protests against President Alexander Lukashenko that erupted after the 2020 presidential election.

The unprecedented wave of demonstrations swept Belarus after authorities claimed that Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, won by a landslide against main opposition rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya despite a vote marred by widespread fraud.

Nexta shared crucial crowdsourced information and videos of brutal crackdowns, at times one of the very few available sources of information amid government internet shutdowns.

Protasevich’s online activities drew the ire of Belarusian authorities, and hundreds of other opposition figures fled the country as officials aggressively suppressed the unrest and began a broad campaign to hunt down activists.

In May 2021, Protasevich was en route from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, on a Ryanair flight with his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. The flight was diverted and landed in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, after Belarusian authorities falsely claimed there was a bomb on board. Upon arrival, Protasevich was immediately arrested. The European Union condemned the act as “hijacking” and “piracy” and banned flights over Belarusian airspace.

Protasevich’s arrest and prosecution sparked major concern among human rights groups. A day after the blogger was taken off the plane, Telegram channels posted a short video in which he appeared with abrasions and bruises on his face and confessed to organizing “mass riots.” Scholars, family members and rights activists said at the time there was little doubt that he had been coerced into confessing.

Belarusian law enforcement has a track record of using intimidation and coercion to get forced confessions, recordings of which are then shared with state media and amplified by other pro-government sources.

Protasevich spent the first few weeks of his arrest in a KGB detention center. He then reappeared on state TV in a lengthy interview with a Lukashenko-friendly TV reporter. Protasevich listed other bloggers who ran online outlets running information counter to state media and said he had been fully cooperating with the authorities.

Soon after the interview, Protasevich was released from the detention center and placed under house arrest. He gave several interviews, repeating official Minsk talking points casting the protests as Western plots to topple the government, and he praised Lukashenko.

“I’m very happy … of course, I have so many emotions now, it’s difficult to form thoughts … but first of all, I am of course, very thankful to the country and personally to the president for this decision, and I hope it will only get better from here,” Protasevich said Monday in a clip shared by Belta, the government news agency.

Earlier in May, he was sentenced to eight years in prison. Two other bloggers in the Nexta case — Yan Rudik and Stepan Putilo — were tried in absentia and sentenced to 19 years and 20 years in a high-security prison, respectively. Nexta was labeled a terrorist organization, and the three activists were accused of a slew of criminal offenses, including “conspiracy to seize state power in Belarus in an unconstitutional way” and “insulting the president of Belarus.”

Sapega, a Russian national, was accused of running another Telegram channel called “Belarus’s Black Book,” which published personal information about the country’s security forces. She was sentenced in 2022 to six years in prison. Last month, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Belarus granted its Russian counterparts’ request to transfer Sapega to Russia following her family’s pleas.

“Raman Pratasevich said that Lukashenka pardoned him. After detention, Raman was forced to collaborate with KGB; he praised Lukashenka,” said politician Franak Viacorka, an adviser to Lukashenko election challenger Tikhanovskaya, using alternative spellings of the names. “Pardoning doesn’t mean freedom: He is under the hood. Meanwhile, the regime intensifies pressure on political prisoners. Dozens of them disappeared.”

In the wake of the pardon, the reaction of Russian pundits — who, like Lukashenko, painted the protests against the authoritarian leader’s reelection as a Western ploy — inadvertently confirmed the law enforcement pressure tactics used against the dissident, Protasevich’s supporters said.

“Protasevich was pardoned because he betrayed everyone, including his bride, humiliated himself exactly to the extent he was ordered to, did not make a fuss and was generally like a bunny,” Russia’s top TV propagandist, Margarita Simonyan, wrote in her blog. “Thus demonstrating to the outside world the true face of any leader of any color revolution — the face of a scaredy-cat.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin threw his weight behind Lukashenko in 2020 by offering to send riot police and bestowing a $1.5 billion loan to an embattled ally weeks into mass protests. Russia’s backing helped Lukashenko regain control, but being indebted to the Kremlin weakened his position in the long-running negotiations about deeper integration with Moscow, where Lukashenko has performed a fragile balancing act of maintaining a veneer of independence without alienating Putin.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Belarus has allowed Russian forces to use its territory as the staging ground for attacks, and the two leaders frequently meet each other, most recently during the May 9 Victory Day celebrations in Moscow. On Monday, Lukashenko announced bilateral talks with Putin later this week to “resolve problems that should not be in our relations at all.”

“As the government reports to me, well, there are almost no problems [in relations with the Russian Federation]. I have little faith in this. I see from the situation that there are still problems, some inconsistencies. Sometimes there is bureaucracy,” Lukashenko said in a meeting with his ambassador to Russia.

Also on Monday, Eduard Babaryka, the son of former presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka, went on trial in Minsk while the whereabouts of his father, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2021 on charges he rejected as politically motivated, remain unknown. Their cases are among thousands of proceedings initiated against Belarusian protesters and activists since 2020, according to the Viasna rights group.

“[Protasevich’s case] is a sad human story,” Russian journalist Anton Orekh wrote in his Telegram blog. “While some people in Belarus are given hellish sentences and rot in prison, he was pardoned. But it is difficult to criticize a person for not becoming a hero if you were not in his place. And there is no desire to be in his place.”

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