Belarus jails girlfriend of dissident seized from Ryanair flight

Sofia Sapega sentenced to six years following forced landing of plane in May 2021

A student who was seized from a Ryanair flight forced to land in Belarus was sentenced to six years in jail on Friday, accused of fomenting unrest in the highly repressive state.

Sofia Sapega was returning to Lithuania from a holiday in Greece with her partner Roman Protasevich last year when Belarussian authorities ordered a fighter jet to escort their passenger plane to Minsk while it was crossing the country's airspace, and detained the couple.

On Friday a Belarussian court sentenced the 24-year-old to six years in jail on charges of inciting social enmity and discord, according to human rights group Vyansa, which tracks political prosecutions in the country.

Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said Ms Sapega had become "collateral damage" in dictator Alexander Lukashenko's pursuit of her partner, who became a target of authorities for his work as an editor of the news outlet Nexta as it covered anti-government protests.

“I am sorry for Sofia and her family. No one should suffer from dictatorship,” Ms Tsikhanouskaya said on Twitter.

The Nexta Telegram channel distributed information about mass protests that broke out when Mr Lukashenko claimed victory in a disputed 2020 election, extending his 26-year rule and unleashing a wave of violent repression against dissent.

After Ms Sapega’s arrest Belarussian authorities released a “confession” video in which the student said she was the editor of another Telegram channel that published the personal information of security personnel involved in the crackdown. Opposition figures said the statement was made under duress.

Mr Protasevich (27) appeared in a similar video that alarmed his family as they said his nose appeared to be broken, and that he was using words that seemed scripted. He is yet to go on trial.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin condemned the forced landing of the flight at the time and demanded the "immediate release" of the couple.

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary described the incident as a “state-sponsored hijacking” with the aim of capturing Mr Protasevich and Ms Sapega, and said Belarusian authorities had fabricated a bomb threat as a pretext to force the plane to land.

‘Trumped up’

Fianna Fáil foreign affairs spokesman Seán Haughey, who "adopts" Belarussian political prisoners as a way to pressure authorities not to mistreat them, said the charges against Sapega were "obviously trumped up" and warned of abuses in custody, noting that a previous prisoner he advocated for had died in custody.

He described Ms Sapega’s case as “absolutely outrageous”.

"I think the fact that it was a Ryanair plane really brought it home to Ireland. We can be a bit geographically removed from all this sort of activity, but it really brought home to us just the fragility of democracy and peace in Europe," he said.

At the time of her arrest Ms Sapega was returning to Vilnius to defend her Masters thesis, according to the European Humanities University, where she was studying International Law and European Union Law.

Ms Sapega is a Russian citizen, and there have been calls for Moscow to pressure Belarus for her release. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on Friday that Russian officials would "continue to protect her legitimate interests" but declined to comment on a court decision in a "friendly" country that is a rare ally in Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Belarus arrested 13,500 people in the wake of the 2020 protests, many of whom were subjected to repeated beatings and sexual violence, the United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said in March. She called for the release of almost 1,100 activists, opposition members and journalists whom she said were detained on "politically motivated charges".

Earlier this year, the United States filed charges against Belarussian officials for aircraft piracy for their role in diverting the Ryanair flight, while the European Union imposed sanctions on Belarus and barred its airlines from EU airspace in response to the incident.