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Belarus pardons opposition blogger arrested after plane crash-landed

Roman Protasevich, a dissident blogger arrested in 2021 after Belarusian authorities forced his flight to deviate 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 has been a major source of news about opposition protests against President Alexander Lukashenko that erupted after the 2020 presidential election.

The unprecedented wave of protests swept through Belarus after authorities claimed Lukashenko, in power since 1994, won a landslide victory over main opposition rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya despite a vote marred by widespread fraud.

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

Protasevich’s online activity as a blogger angered Belarusian authorities, and hundreds of other opposition figures fled the country as authorities aggressively cracked down on unrest and launched a broad campaign to track down the militants.

In May 2021, Protasevich was en route from Athens to Vilnius on a Ryanair flight with his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. The flight was hijacked and landed in Minsk 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 have raised serious concerns among human rights groups. A day after the blogger was taken off the plane, Telegram channels published a short video in which he appeared with abrasions and bruises on his face and confessed to having organized “mass riots”. Academics, family members and human rights activists said at the time there was little doubt he had been forced to confess.

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

Protasevich spent the first weeks of his arrest in a KGB detention center. He then reappeared on state television with a lengthy interview with a television journalist friend of Lukashenko. Protasevich listed other bloggers who ran online outlets spreading information against state media and said he cooperated fully with authorities.

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

“I’m very happy…of course I have so many emotions now, it’s hard to form thoughts…but above all, of course I’m very grateful to the country and personally to the president for this decision, and hopefully it only gets 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 implicated in the Nexta affair – Yan Rudik and Stepan Putilo – were tried in absentia and sentenced to 19 and 20 years respectively in a maximum security prison. Nexta has been recognized as a terrorist organization and the three activists have been charged with a range of criminal offences, including “conspiring to seize state power in Belarus unconstitutionally” and ” insult to the President of Belarus”.

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

“Raman Pratasevich said Lukashenko forgave him. After his detention, Raman was forced to collaborate with the KGB; he praised Lukashenko,” said politician Franak Viacorka, adviser to Lukashenko’s election candidate Tsikhanouskaya, using alternative spellings of the names. “Forgiveness does not mean freedom: it is under the hood. Meanwhile, the regime is stepping up pressure on political prisoners. Dozens of them have disappeared.

The reaction of Russian experts to the pardon, who like Lukashenko described protests against the authoritarian leader’s re-election as a Western ploy, inadvertently confirmed the pressure tactics law enforcement used against the dissident, said supporters of Protasevich.

“Protasevich was pardoned because he betrayed everyone, including his wife, humbled himself exactly to the extent he was ordered to, didn’t make a fuss and was generally like a rabbit,” Margarita Simonyan, Russia’s top TV propagandist, wrote in her blog. . “Thus demonstrating to the outside world the true face of any leader of any color revolution – the face of a scary cat.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has thrown his weight behind Lukashenko in 2020 by offering to send riot police and providing a $1.5 billion loan to a beleaguered ally weeks after mass protests. Russian support has helped Lukashenko regain control, but being beholden to the Kremlin has weakened his position in the long-drawn-out negotiations over deeper integration with Moscow, where Lukashenko strikes a delicate balance to maintain a veneer of independence without alienating Putin.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Belarus has allowed Russian forces to use its territory as a base for attacks, and the two leaders meet frequently, most recently at Victory Day celebrations on May 9 in Moscow. On Monday, Lukashenko announced bilateral talks with Putin later this week to “resolve issues that shouldn’t 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 hardly believe it. I see from the situation that there are still problems, inconsistencies. Sometimes there is bureaucracy,” Lukashenko said during a meeting with his ambassador to Russia.

On Monday, Eduard Babaryka, the son of former presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka, stood trial in Minsk while the fate of his father, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2021 on charges he dismissed as politically motivated, remains unknown. Their cases are among thousands of cases brought against Belarusian protesters and activists since 2020, according to rights group Viasna.

“[Protasevich’s case] is a sad human story,” Belarusian journalist Anton Orekh wrote on his Telegram blog. “While some people in Belarus are sentenced to hell and rot in prison, he was pardoned. But it’s hard to blame someone for not becoming a hero if you weren’t in their shoes. And there is no desire to be in his place.

A year of Russian war in Ukraine

Portraits from Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion a year ago – in ways both big and small. They learned to survive and help each other in dire circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and crumbling markets. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of Attrition: Over the past year, the war has evolved from a multi-pronged invasion that included kyiv in the north to an attrition conflict largely concentrated over a swath of territory to the east and south. Follow the 600 mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and see where the fighting has been concentrated.

One year of separate life: The invasion of Russia, coupled with Ukrainian martial law preventing men of military age from leaving the country, has forced millions of Ukrainian families to make agonizing decisions about how to balance safety, duty and love, once intertwined lives have become unrecognizable. This is what a train station full of farewells looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but closer examination suggests the world is far from united on the issues raised by the war in Ukraine. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions have not stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.

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