Colleagues of Belarus Dissidents Arrested in Minsk Fear for Their Lives

Society | May 27, 2021, Thursday // 14:50|  views

Former colleagues of the dissident journalist arrested in Belarus after a Ryanair flight was diverted on Sunday say they now fear for their lives.

Roman Protasevich, 26, and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, are both being held in detention.

"Roman is more in danger than other political prisoners in Belarus," Stepan Putsila told the BBC.

Mr Protasevich has said he fears the death penalty after being placed on a terrorism list.

He faces charges related to his reporting of last August's disputed Belarusian presidential election and the subsequent crackdown on mass opposition protests.

Belarus is the only European country that still executes prisoners.

Mr Protasevich and Ms Sapega were detained on Sunday, after Belarus scrambled a military jet to force their plane - flying from Athens to Vilnius, in neighbouring Lithuania - to land in Minsk, the Belarusian capital.

Western countries accuse Belarus of hijacking the Ryanair plane that was rerouted over a supposed bomb threat.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is due to address the country's parliament on Wednesday.

Mr Putsila, who along with Mr Protasevich co-founded the opposition social media channel Nexta on Telegram, said the Belarus government under Mr Lukashenko "fears us because we show the truth".

Nexta has more than a million subscribers and was used for mobilising street protests last year.

"We show what they want to conceal," he said. "If the regime cares enough to bring down Roman's plane, then we are doing something right, and we will carry on fighting."

Mr Putsila added that while he had received death threats in the past, he was now "taking them seriously".

His comments come after the families of Mr Protasevich and Ms Sapega, who have both given video statements since their detention, spoke of their concern for the pair's safety.

"I'm calling on the whole international community to save him," Mr Protasevich's mother, Natalia, said.

In Ms Sapega's video statement, she says she edits a Telegram channel that publishes personal information of Belarusian policemen. However, it is likely she is speaking under duress.

"Today Sophia was interrogated. She was accused of committing a criminal offence. A preventive measure was chosen - detention for a period of two months," her lawyer, Alexander Filanovich, told the BBC's Russian service on Tuesday.

Ms Sapega is now in a pre-trial detention centre in the Belarusian capital, he said.

Ms Sapega's mother cast doubt on how freely her daughter was speaking in the video, released by a pro-government Telegram channel.

"She sways, eyes in the sky - as if afraid of forgetting something," she told the BBC.

"I enlarged [the video] as much as possible - it seems that [she looks] okay. We are now packing warm clothes, we will go to Minsk. I want to try to give her a parcel - I saw she only had a thin jacket."

Just on Tuesday, another seven activists were handed long prison sentences. Last week, the country's best-known independent news website was taken offline, with multiple arrests for supposed financial irregularities. Since the protests were crushed, bloggers and businesspeople, politicians and protesters have all ended up behind bars and no-one knows who might be

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Tags: Belarus, dissidents, arrest, life at risk


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