A Belarusian journalist who was arrested after being escorted off a Ryanair plane in 2021 has been sentenced to eight years in prison for conspiring against the state. The Belarusian military sent an MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the commercial flight to the ground two years ago, which was subsequently condemned by the US.
Reuters reported that Roman Protasevich, 27, was ultimately found guilty of a number of offenses, including the organization of mass disturbances, inciting terrorism, and slandering Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Protasevich worked as a journalist for Nexta, reporting on the mass demonstrations against Lukashenko’s 2020 presidential election. There were more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands were beaten and jailed for protesting the results of the election. Western countries had criticized the voting results for irregularities. President Joe Biden had levied sanctions against Belarus following Lukashenko’s sixth consecutive term, per NPR.
As a result, Nexta’s founder and former editor were also sentenced in absentia by the same court, having to serve 20 and 19 years, respectively. Belarus subsequently labeled Nexta a “terrorist organization” in 2022, per the report.
Protasevich had been on a flight from Greece to Lithuania in 2021 when Belarusian air traffic control directed the plane to Minsk under the false declaration of a bomb threat. The journalist was then arrested and detained with his Russian partner, Sofia Sapega, who was also sentenced to six years. Sapega has reportedly been transferred back to Russia to serve her prison sentence.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled opposition leader, referred to the trial as “fake,” noting that Protasevich had been “the regime’s hostage since the Ryanair hijacking,” per Reuters. Protasevich confessed to the charges of conspiring against the state in an effort to topple Lukashenko.Lukashenko’s military has evidently been collaborating with Russia since the invasion of Ukraine, with a report early last month suggesting that Belarusian aircraft were now fit to carry nukes. Though the magnitude of Lukashenko’s involvement in Russia’s military endeavors is unclear, it was also reported that Russia had moved tactical nuclear weapons into Belarus last month.