Companion of detained journalist may face criminal charges in Belarus

Sofia Sapega jailed for two months, video released on pro-Lukashenko channel

Belarusian authorities have released a video of Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen detained along with Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich, on a pro-Lukashenko Telegram channel. Video: Reuters

 

Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen who was detained along with Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich after their flight was diverted by a warplane to Minsk on Sunday, may face criminal charges in Belarus, according to Russia’s foreign ministry.

The Belarus warplane intercepted a Ryanair passenger jet carrying Mr Protasevich, a journalist critical of Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, in an act denounced by Western powers as “state piracy”.

Ms Sapega, a 23-year-old student who was travelling with Mr Protasevich, was detained by Minsk police “in connection with the suspicion of having committed, between August and September 2020, offences under several articles of the Belarusian Criminal Code,” a Russian foreign ministry statement said.

She was jailed for two months on Tuesday with an investigation pending.

A video posted on a pro-Lukashenko channel on the Telegram messaging app on Tuesday evening showed a young woman sitting in a chair who said she was Sofia Sapega.

Reading a memorised text, apparently under duress, she confessed to editing a Telegram channel that releases personal information about, or doxes, Belarusian police officers and other security agents, a crime in Belarus.

The video indicates that Belarus may plan to threaten Ms Sapega, who is not known to have played a serious role in last year’s protests, with years in prison.

Ms Sapega’s mother, Anna Dudich, said in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday that her daughter was innocent and simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Ms Sapega feels well and has not complained of inappropriate treatment, the RIA news agency reported, citing Russia’s embassy to Belarus. It plans to take all measures to protect and support her, it added.

Ms Sapega is a student at a university in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. She was flying there with Mr Protasevich after their holiday in Greece to defend her master’s thesis ahead of graduation, according to the university.

Condemnation

The act by the regime of Lukashenko has drawn condemnation around the world. European Union leaders barred Belarusian airlines from the bloc and urged EU-based carriers not to fly through the country’s airspace, depriving Mr Lukashenko’s regime of substantial over-flight and landing fees.

Latvia’s government followed this move on Tuesday night, banning Belarus airlines from entering its airspace and telling all aircraft landing or taking off from its airports to avoid Belarus airspace, the transport ministry’s spokeswoman said on Wednesday.

“The regulations have no end date. They can be revised as the security situation improves,” Baiba Gulbe said.

Canada on Tuesday condemned Belarus and said it was examining whether to tighten existing sanctions.

“The behaviour of the Belarus regime is outrageous, illegal and completely unacceptable . . . we also condemn this kind of dangerous interference in civil aviation,” prime minister Justin Trudeau told reporters.

Separately, the Belarus embassy in Ottawa said it would shut down on September 1st, after 24 years of operation.

“This decision was made on the basis of an analysis of the practical impact [on] current bilateral contacts,” acting ambassador Evgeny Russak said by email.

Canada also advised Canadian airlines and aircraft “to avoid operating at any altitude within Belarusian airspace due to serious safety and security concerns posed to civil aviation operations,” according to a joint statement from foreign minister Marc Garneau and transport minister Omar Alghabra.

Duress

A video of Mr Protasevich surfaced on Monday in which he said he felt well, was being treated decently and was “co-operating” and had “confessed to organising mass protests in Minsk”.

His father, however, has said it was clear his son was acting under duress and had been beaten when the video was recorded.

Dmitry Protasevich said Roman was “very nervous” and “spoke in a way that was unusual for him”.

“It’s clear that he was physically harmed because you can see signs of a beating on his face,” he added. He said his son also appeared to be missing some teeth.

“We still don’t know where he is, what his condition is, how he feels,” the father, who lives in Poland, said.

Roman Protasevich’s social media feed from exile has been one of the last independent outlets for news about Belarus since a security crackdown on mass protests against authoritarian Lukashenko’s rule after a disputed election last August.

Regular demonstrations in Minsk started in August with protesters demanding Mr Lukashenko quit because they said the vote was rigged to give him a landslide victory.

About 35,000 people have been detained since then and protests have subsided. – Reuters, Guardian