MOSCOW – A Belarusian opposition activist and his girlfriend, who were arrested after their airliner was forced to land in the country’s capital, Minsk, have been under house arrest, their lawyer said on Friday and their parents.
Dissident Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega have been released from prison as the European Union imposes severe penalties on 78 people and critical sectors of Belarusian economy in response to what Western countries called a “hijacking” of the Ryanair jet on which the two were traveling.
They remain accused of helping organize the mass anti-government protests that erupted in Belarus last year after Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the brutal and erratic leader of the country, claimed victory in a widely held election. qualified as fraudulent. If found guilty, Mr Protasevich and Ms Sapega could be sentenced to more than 10 years in the country’s notoriously harsh prison system.
In an interview and press conference after his arrest, Mr Protasevich, 26, renounced his views and praised Mr Lukashenko, whom he had previously compared to Hitler and called a “dictator” . Mr Protasevich’s parents said he made the statements under duress.
Ms Sapega, 23, appeared in a video in which she made a seemingly forced confession to working on an opposition account on social network Telegram that collected personal information about Belarusian law enforcement officers.
- Belarus in the spotlight. The forced landing of a commercial flight on Sunday is considered by several countries as a state hijacking demanded by its president, the strongman, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko.
- Election results and protest. It came less than a year after Belarusians faced brutal police repression when they protested the results of an election that many Western governments have ridiculed as a sham.
- Forced landing of the plane. The Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, was rerouted to Minsk in an attempt to arrest 26-year-old dissident journalist Roman Protasevich.
- Who is Roman Protasevich? In a video released by the government, Protasevich confessed to helping organize “mass unrest” last year, but friends say the confession was made under duress.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, an exiled Belarusian opposition leader, said that although the couple’s transfer to separate safe houses was good news, they were still under the full control of Lukashenko’s security guards.
“House arrest is not freedom – they are still charged, every step they take is still monitored,” Tikhanovskaya said in a statement. “It means they are still hostages.”
Speaking to the BBC, Mr Protasevich’s father, Dmitry Protasevich, said transferring his son from prison could be part of “a political game”.
For Ms. Sapega’s parents, however, their daughter’s release from prison was a huge relief. Ms Sapega’s stepfather Sergei Dudich said they were able to see their daughter on Thursday at a restaurant in Minsk.
“You can imagine what it feels like when your child has been transferred from prison to a place where she has basic freedoms,” Mr. Dudich said in an interview. “We are immensely happy. “
Last week, Mr Dudich recorded a video statement in which he begged Mr Lukashenko to be merciful to Ms Sapega.
Mr Dudich and Ms Sapega’s lawyer Anton Gashinsky said they believed the decision to release her was taken by Mr Lukashenko after he met Russian President Vladimir V. Putin at the end of May.
Mr Putin’s support was a critical factor in Mr Lukashenko’s struggle to retain power last year. At the height of the protests in September, Mr Putin gave Mr Lukashenko a $ 1.5 billion loan and vaguely promised to intervene if the situation seemed to get out of hand.
Lukashenko quelled the popular uprising against his 26-year rule with an application of violence unprecedented in Europe for decades. More than 35,000 demonstrators have been arrested, hundreds of activists have been beaten and tortured, dozens of journalists have been arrested and independent newsrooms have been closed. More than 500 political prisoners remain behind bars, according to Viasna, a human rights group in Minsk.
On Thursday, the European Union imposed sanctions against major Belarusian industries, including petroleum products and potash, which produce much-needed hard currency. Belarus will now have to divert its export routes and rely even more on the support of the Kremlin.
The Belarusian foreign ministry on Friday vowed to impose retaliatory measures in response to the sanctions, saying Western nations have formed “an axis” against Belarus and are trying to “gradually suffocate” the Belarusian people.