Belarus sentences activist after forcing his plane down over fake Hamas bomb threat

Roman Protasevich gets eight years in prison for efforts to coordinate 2020 protests against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko

File: Belarusian activist Roman Protasevich takes part in a briefing for journalists and diplomats organized by the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Belarus in Minsk, June 14, 2021. (STRINGER/AFP)
File: Belarusian activist Roman Protasevich takes part in a briefing for journalists and diplomats organized by the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Belarus in Minsk, June 14, 2021. (STRINGER/AFP)

A Belarusian activist who was arrested in 2021 after his Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in Belarus has been sentenced to eight years in prison, state media reported on Wednesday.

“The Minsk regional court has sentenced Roman Protasevich to eight years in a prison colony,” Belarusian news agency Belta said.

Prosecutors had asked for a 10-year sentence for Protasevich, the former editor of an opposition Telegram account.

He has been accused of helping coordinate mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in 2020.

The Moscow-allied country, ruled by Lukashenko since 1994, has cracked down on anyone linked to the protests, which were the biggest in Belarusian history.

Protasevich was arrested after his Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was intercepted by a Belarusian fighter jet and forced to land in Minsk.

File: The Ryanair plane carrying opposition figure Roman Protasevich, lands at the international airport outside Vilnius, Lithuania, May 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)

Belarus transport officials later claimed the country had received a bomb threat claiming to be from the Hamas terror group that threatened to blow up the plane unless Israel halted military operations in Gaza. The claim was regarded as dubious as Hamas and Israel had ceased fighting two days earlier.

“He’s been the regime’s hostage since the Ryanair hijacking,” opposition figure Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said after the verdict.

“The Belarus regime again shows its disregard for justice by sentencing three journalists in a fake trial on PressFreedomDay,” she said on Twitter.

Two other key figures behind the Nexta Telegram channel, Stepan Putilo and Yan Rudnik were sentenced in absentia to 20 years and 19 years in prison respectively.

The charges included making public calls to insurrection, organizing of terrorist attacks, offending the president, and spreading false information about Belarus.

After his arrest, which caused international shock, Protasevich is believed to have been coerced by authorities into issuing apologetic statements on state television.

File: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko speaks at his residence, the Independence Palace, in the capital Minsk, on July 21, 2022. (Alexander NEMENOV/AFP)

As his trial opened in February, he said he was “fully guilty,” in a video published by state news agency Belta.

Franak Viacorka, a close adviser to Tikhanovskaya, tweeted that “when he was kidnapped, (Protasevich) chose to collaborate with the KGB… it did not help to avoid imprisonment.”

He has been under house arrest since June 2021.

Nexta, a popular channel on YouTube and Telegram, had played an active role in the 2020 protests, which erupted after Lukashenko was accused of rigging an election.

The platform was banned and declared a “terrorist organization.”

According to Belarus’s independent Viasna rights group, there are now 1,500 political prisoners in the country.

The Minsk regime, reclusive for years, has become even more isolated after brutally suppressing the protests and allowing Russia to use Belarusian territory to launch its Ukraine offensive.

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