Last May, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko ordered a sensational act of international air piracy, commanding his security services to fabricate a bomb scare to force a commercial Ryanair flight to ground as it flew over his country’s airspace.
A year on, the fates of the 20-something couple arrested in the brazen operation have diverged in ways that few would have predicted – underlining the seemingly inexhaustible capacity of the Lukashenko regime to cruelly crush the lives and reputations of those in its path.
Sofia Sapega, a 24-year-old law student who became ensnared in the affair simply by virtue of being the girlfriend of the activist target of the pseudo-hijacking, was recently sentenced to six years in jail: a harsh punishment viewed by observers as unjust and politically motivated.
By contrast, her former boyfriend, Roman Protasevich – the high-profile blogger who was Lukashenko’s reason for pursuing Flight 4978 – is, at least from what is publicly known of the case, being subjected to much milder conditions under house arrest.
He’s even recently married another woman, further diminishing his standing since his arrest among many Belarusians who view him as culpable for the brutal punishment that’s befallen Sapega. Some observers, though, believe that even the news of his marriage – announced in a blog post while he remains detained by Belarusian authorities – is part of a deliberate strategy to discredit his reputation among the Belarusian opposition.
While much of what has happened since remains murky, the events of the 23rd of May, 2021, when the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was unexpectedly diverted to Minsk, were unquestionably geared at detaining Protasevich, a prominent young Lithuania-based blogger and activist. He had gained a high profile as the editor-in-chief of the influential Telegram channel Nexta, which had played a key role in coordinating protests against Lukashenko, an authoritarian whose victory in August 2020 was viewed as rigged and fraudulent by Western countries.
Arrested alongside him was Sapega, a Vilnius-based law student with no prior public profile, who happened to be flying back to their home in Lithuania with him from a holiday in Greece.
“She really happened to be in the wrong place with the wrong guy, and that’s why she was caught,” Tatsiana Chulitskaya, a Belarusian political scientist at Vytautas Magnus University in the Lithuanian capital told VICE World News.
Yet although Sapega was widely viewed as collateral damage in the Belarusian regime’s high-stakes pursuit of her boyfriend, she’s been shown no mercy in the year since her arrest. On the 6th of May, Sapega was convicted and sentenced to six years in jail, in a closed-door trial which Amnesty International’s Anastasiia Kruope told VICE World News was typical of politically-motivated repressions in Belarus.
Sapega, a Russian citizen who has reportedly spent almost all her life in Belarus, was found guilty of charges that included inciting social hatred, and illegally collecting and disseminating personal information without consent, for allegedly running a Telegram channel, Black Book of Belarus, that officials said revealed the personal data of officials and security forces involved in the crackdown on protests.
Observers said that the closed-door nature of the trial, in which the licences of Sapega’s lawyers were arbitrarily revoked and no evidence was disclosed to the public, made it impossible to assess the credibility of the allegations against her.
“In Belarus, the term ‘credible charges’ does not exist, especially in politically motivated cases,” said Hanna Liubakova, a Belarusian journalist and non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Barys Haretski, deputy chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, agreed.
“Human rights activists do not have any accurate information to assess the plausibility” of the allegations, he told VICE World News.
“We think that, regardless of her actions, Belarusian authorities would still put her behind bars. Firstly, to put pressure on Protasevich, secondly to brag about their victories in [pursuit of] enemies.”
Even in a country where bloggers have been sentenced to 15 years in closed-door trials that Amnesty International has labelled unlawful persecutions, the severity of Sapega’s sentence came as a shock to many observers, prompting an outpouring of sympathy.
“I am sorry for Sofia and her family. No one should suffer from dictatorship,” tweeted exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, calling the student “collateral damage” in Lukashenko’s pursuit of Protasevich.
By contrast, Protasevich, one of the regime’s most wanted men at the time of his arrest, is from outward appearances being subjected to much milder treatment. Having cooperated with authorities since his arrest last year, he remains under house arrest while the investigation against him continues, a situation from which he is able to travel to his office, make occasional pro-regime appearances in the media, and post the odd social media update.
The specifics of the cases against Sapega and Protasevich, and the details of their treatment by authorities since their arrests, remain – in the words of leading Belarusian human rights group Viasna – “extremely non-transparent.”
But the apparent contrast in his and Sapega’s treatments – and the perception that he was at fault for dragging her into all this – has led to criticism of Protasevich from pockets of the Belarusian opposition movement, which he addressed in a lengthy blog post earlier this month, just days after Sapega was sentenced.
He used the blog to discuss his and Sapega’s respective legal ordeals, their relationship, and the public criticism he has faced, while explaining he was also acting as a witness in more than a dozen other criminal cases. In particular, he railed against the public perception that he was to blame for Sapega’s legal troubles, writing that she was already an activist when they met after he moved to Vilnius, and she had been already moderating the Black Book of Belarus Telegram channel.
“Sonia was convicted for her real activities, and not for being in a relationship with me,” he wrote.
He went on to argue that her six years was “far from the most terrible sentence possible”; pushed back against perceptions that he was “calmly walking around free” (although he conceded that “things could be worse”); and wrote that, in fact, they had already called time on their relationship before they boarded the fateful flight to Vilnius. He had had no direct contact with Sapega for seven months, he wrote – and, as a matter of fact, he had recently gotten married, concluding his post with a photo of him kissing a woman clutching a pink bouquet, her face digitally blurred.
The blog – posted, with a jarring lack of sensitivity, in the immediate aftermath of Sapega’s sentencing – caused a stir in Belarus, and did nothing to burnish Protasevich’s reputation, which has taken a significant hit since his arrest.
“I mean, it really looks bad – your ex-girlfriend was sentenced to six years in prison, and the next day you announce you got married,” Chulitskaya, the Belarusian political scientist, told VICE World News.
“Of course people were discussing it. It doesn’t make Roman Protasevich look like a good guy.”
The blog was just the latest in a series of occasional public pronouncements by Protasevich since his arrest last May, in which he has expressed broadly pro-regime positions starkly at odds with his previous life as an anti-government activist, in which he had described Lukashenko as “a dictator” and compared him to Hitler. Three weeks after hijacking of his Ryanair flight, he was wheeled out alongside Belarusian generals at a live press conference, in which he renounced his views and said he wanted to make amends for the trouble he’d caused. He also levelled accusations at his colleagues in the Belarusian opposition and civic society, claiming they were to blame for forcing down the plane.
Chulitskaya said that while there were quiet rumblings of discontent among the opposition who were critical of Protasevich for cooperating with the government, as opposed to other political prisoners who had refused to, people were understanding of the 27-year-old’s predicament as essentially a hostage at the mercy of a brutal, authoritarian regime.
“Of course, it would be better if he was not behaving as he is now, but at the same time we cannot judge him,” she said. “We don’t know what they’re doing to him – it might be torture, manipulation, anything.”
Liubakova, the Belarusian journalist, told VICE World News that Protasevich’s statements were “the words of a hostage.”
“It must be really frightening for him to be a hostage and face such serious accusations,” she said.
“When Roman was arrested, he began accusing his colleagues in Vilnius of forcing down the plane. I don’t think he seriously believed in that – this was the regime’s wish and words security forces skillfully put into his mouth.”
Haretski, of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, agreed.
“Protasevich's words definitely cannot be taken reliably, since he is under the physical control of the authorities and no one knows exactly how much these words were made under pressure,” he told VICE World News. “We have no information about the strength of this coercion, since the authorities severely protected him from society.”
Liubakova said she believed that Protasevich’s statements since his arrest – such as the curious revelation that he had, somehow, gotten married while under house arrest – appeared to be deliberately calculated by the regime to undermine his status and reputation among fellow democratic activists.
“Not surprisingly, there were many negative comments about him” after the marriage announcement, she said.
“Yet in one of his posts, he wrote that he is under house arrest and the only activity he is allowed to do is to travel to work. So given his limited freedom, how was he even able to meet anyone and then marry this woman?
“Isn’t it done to provoke hatred against him, to diminish empathy, to make people forget about him?” she said. “The regime did everything to humiliate and ruin his reputation.”
Observers of the saga say that, above all, it underlines the lengths the Lukashenko regime is prepared to go to in order to quash anyone who stands in its way.
“It shows that the gloves are off,” Belarus expert Eleanor Bindman, a senior lecturer in politics at Manchester Metropolitan University, told VICE World News. “They really have no qualms about trampling all over people’s lives.”