Jailed Belarus Journalist, Girlfriend Moved to House Arrest

By The Associated Press
The Associated Press
The Associated Press
June 25, 2021 Updated: June 25, 2021

KYIV, Ukraine—The dissident Belarusian journalist and his Russian girlfriend who were arrested after being pulled off a flight that was diverted to Minsk have been moved from jail to house arrest—a move that the country’s exiled opposition leader said Friday was positive but still left them “hostages.”

Raman Pratasevich—who ran a messaging app channel that was widely used in last year’s massive protests against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko—and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were seized on May 23 when their flight from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in Minsk because of an alleged bomb threat.

Several world leaders denounced the dramatic gambit as a hijacking, and it prompted another round of Western sanctions on Belarus, where Lukashenko has faced months of mass protests against his rule and lashed out with a brutal crackdown.

Since his arrest, Pratasevich, who faces a potential 15 years in prison, has been seen on state television and at a government press briefing expressing regret for his activities. The opposition said he spoke under duress.

Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called the couple’s move to house arrest “good news” but stressed their situation remains precarious. “House arrest is not freedom, they’re still facing charges, their every step is still being watched. It means they’re still hostages,” said Tsikhanouskaya, who left Belarus for Lithuania last year under pressure from the authorities.

She added that her team is in touch with Pratasevich’s parents, who “aren’t given any information about their son, aren’t allowed to talk to him” and are “convinced that the regime is playing a game, using Raman’s and Sofia’s lives.”

An adviser who spoke to the parents added that they don’t believe authorities plan to free their son. Instead, Franak Viacorka said, the move might be aimed at holding off any more punishing sanctions.

“We urge the European and the global community not to give in—everyone needs to be free and not under house arrest,” he said. “Lukashenko’s goal—to create an illusion of softening and concessions. But this is just one prison replaced with another.”

Viacorka said Pratasevich’s sister has been able to pass on some belongings to him and talk to him. “The house arrest is not freedom, he lives there with operatives of the KGB (security service), agents who watch him round the clock,” he said.

Sapega’s lawyer, Anton Gashinsky, also confirmed that his client was transferred to house arrest recently, without specifying when. She is now staying in an apartment in Minsk, and her parents met her on Thursday at a restaurant.

Gashinsky wouldn’t say whether Pratasevich was also there—but said Sapega didn’t go alone.

Pratasevich’s lawyer, Inessa Olenskaya, refused to comment on her client’s whereabouts and status, citing a nondisclosure agreement.

Belarus has been rocked by months of mass protests fueled by Lukashenko’s reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that was widely seen as rigged. The authorities responded to the demonstrations with a massive crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.

Most opposition leaders have been jailed or forced to leave the country.

In the wake of these violations and the flight diversion, the United States, the EU, Britain, and Canada joined forces on Monday to impose sanctions on several top Belarusian officials. The EU also imposed a series of bruising economic sanctions that target key Belarus exports, including potash—a common fertilizer ingredient—and petroleum products.

Belarus’ Foreign Ministry says the sanctions will hurt ordinary people and “border on the declaration of an economic war.” On Friday, the ministry issued another statement condemning the sanctions and promised to take “retaliatory measures” in the coming weeks. “It’s about time European politicians realized that pressure and sanctions are not a language one should use with Belarus,” the statement read.

The Associated Press
The Associated Press