Belarus plane arrest activist Sofia Sapega sentenced to six years

A woman who ran a Belarusian opposition messaging app channel and was arrested along with her activist boyfriend when an airliner they were on was forced to land in Belarus has been convicted of charges that included inciting social hatred.

Following her conviction, Sofia Sapega was sentenced to six years in prison. Sapega is a Russian citizen, and her lawyer, Anton Gashinsky, said she would appeal to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to intervene.

Sapega and Roman Protasevich were flying from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, a year ago when their plane was ordered to land in Belarus accompanied by a fighter jet because of an alleged bomb threat.

Protasevich was the editor of Nexta, a popular channel on the Telegram messaging app that was used to help organise protests in Belarus after the president, Alexander Lukashenko, won a disputed sixth term in August 2020.

Sapega ran another Telegram channel that published the personal data of civil servants and military personnel who took part in mass repressions of the protests.

Western countries denounced the plane diversion as tantamount to air piracy by Belarus. The European Union banned Belarusian airlines from its air space and airports as part of sanctions against the country.

“I am sorry for Sofia and her family. No one should suffer from dictatorship,” the exiled Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya wrote on Twitter after Friday’s verdict.

The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Sapega would get assistance, but declined to comment on the sentence itself.

“She is a citizen of Russia, so in any case, through our diplomats and other channels, we will continue to protect her legitimate interests,” he told reporters on a conference call.

Asked, whether he thought the verdict was fair, Peskov said: “We greatly dislike it when someone comments on the decisions of our courts, so we will not comment the decision of the court in friendly Belarus.”

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The post-election protests were the most serious challenge to Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule since he first took office in 1994.

The protests attracted as many as 200,000 people in the capital of Belarus on some days and persisted for several months. Authorities responded with a severe crackdown in which police arrested more than 35,000 people and thousands were beaten. Leading opposition figures have been imprisoned or forced into exile.