Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has pardoned Sofia Sapega, a Russian national and the former girlfriend of opposition editor Roman Protasevich. Both were arrested when Minsk forced a commercial Ryanair flight to land in Minsk in May 2021 after it crossed into Belarusian airspace causing an international outcry.
Sapega was convicted on charges of trying to organise a coup d'état and was serving a six-year sentence in what was widely seen as a politically motivated case.
As a Russian citizen, the Kremlin has been lobbying Minsk and trying to cut a deal that included the option of allowing Sapega to leave Belarus and serve her sentence in Russia.
Protasevich was an editor for the influential Nexta Telegram channel that played a key role in co-ordinating the otherwise leaderless mass protests that broke out following the fraudulent presidential elections that returned Lukashenko to office in August 2020. He was also released from jail on May 16.
After being convicted of sedition in 2021, Protasevich was released to house arrest and began to appear frequently on state TV, where he denounced the opposition. However, in one appearance on TV the footage showed cuts on his wrists that are widely believed to be caused by handcuffs, suggesting he was appearing under duress. He also married a Belarusian girl, reportedly the daughter of a Belarusian KGB general in the Lukashenko regime.
He was rearrested and sentenced to eight more years in jail earlier this year on spying charges, only to be suddenly pardoned by Lukashenko last month.
The pair were arrested after the Ryanair commercial flight they were on flying from Athens to Vilnius was unexpectedly forced to land in Minsk, after the Belarusian air traffic control informed the pilot they believed there was a bomb on board. A Belarusian MiG jet fighter was also dispatched to escort the Ryanair plane to the ground.
EU countries united in their condemnation of the incident and banned Belarusian flights to Europe and closed their airspace to Belarusian planes.
Following her release, a video published by a Russian official shows Sapega thanking Lukashenko “for this gift” of her release, adding “not only for me, but for my whole family… for giving me a second chance.”
Analysts speculate that two high-profile pardons are a ruse by the Belarusian authorities to persuade other jailed opposition leaders to cut deals, denounce the opposition leaders in exile and the protest movement at home. Since the protests broke out hundreds of opposition figures have been jailed and in many cases have now served over 1,000 days in prison.