Belarus Pardons Leading Opposition Activist
By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
MINSK (Worthy News) – A leading Belarusian opposition activist who was detained after his Ryanair flight was forced to land in the capital Minsk says he has been pardoned following mounting Western pressure.
Roman Protasevich, 28, was the editor of Nexta, a channel on the social media service Telegram, when he was arrested in 2021.
His channel had been instrumental in organizing mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko followings his disputed election victory in 2020.
A Belarusian court sentenced Protasevich to eight years in prison for crimes including “acts of terrorism” and “insulting the president,” charges his supporters say were politically motivated.
But on Monday, Belta, the Belarusian state news agency, reported that Protasevich had told journalists he had been pardoned, calling it “great news.”
“I am incredibly grateful to the country and, of course, to the president personally for such a decision,” Protasevich said in a video released by Belta. “This is, of course, just great news.”
Such leniency for someone who had been an active member of the opposition is unusual in Belarus, observers said.
During nearly three decades in power, Lukashenko has been criticized for his authoritarian policies, including silencing dissent and violently suppressing opponents.
Thousands of people were detained after participating in anti-government protests following the alleged rigged presidential election.
Witnesses said those targeted by authorities endured organized beatings, and people were kept for days without food and threatened with rape by security forces.
It was unclear how security services treated Protasevich, but his supporters say he was coerced into making confessions and apologetic statements on state television.
He was hauled from a plane and arrested alongside his then-girlfriend, Russian citizen Sofia Sapega, in May 2021 after their flight from Greece to Lithuania was suddenly diverted to Minsk by Belarusian air traffic control. They claimed there was a bomb threat.
Western countries accused Minsk of hijacking the Ryanair plane under the pretext of a bomb threat and imposed more sanctions on Belarus.
Sapega was sentenced to six years in jail in May 2022 after a Belarus court found her guilty of “inciting social enmity and discord.”
Lukashenko refused her pardon in January but has agreed to be extradited to Russia, according to trial observers.
Protasevich married another woman a month before Sapega was sentenced.
Lukashenko’s opponents have accused pardoned journalist Protasevich of cooperating with authorities, perhaps under duress.
Protasevich spent the first few weeks of his arrest in a KGB secret service detention center, several sources said.
He then reappeared on state TV in a lengthy interview with a Lukashenko-friendly TV reporter.
Protasevich listed other bloggers who ran online outlets with news and information counter to state media. He 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,” he said in a video message.
“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.
If you are interested in articles produced by Worthy News, please check out our FREE sydication service available to churches or online Christian ministries. To find out more, visit Worthy Plugins.