Jailed Belarus dissident, girlfriend moved to house arrest
In this handout photo released Monday, May 24, 2021, by Belarus Government press office, Belarus journalist Raman Pratasevich speaks to a camera in a prison in Minsk, Belarus. The brief video clip of Pratasevich in custody was shown on Belarusian state television Monday night. He sat at a table with his hands folded in front of him and spoke rapidly, saying he was in satisfactory health, and that his treatment was "maximally correct and according to law." He added that he was giving evidence to investigators about organizing mass disturbances. (Belarus Government press office via AP)
Yuras Karmanau, The Associated Press
Published Friday, June 25, 2021 5:36AM EDT
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) -- The dissident Belarusian journalist and his Russian girlfriend who were arrested after their airline flight was diverted to Minsk last month have been moved from jail to house arrest -- "good news" but not freedom yet, according to the exiled opposition leader.
Raman Pratasevich -- who ran a messaging app channel that was widely used in last year's massive protests against hard-line President Alexander Lukashenko -- and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega were seized on May 23 when their flight from Greece to Lithuania was diverted to Minsk because of an alleged bomb threat.
The move elicited international outrage, and the European Union slapped more economic sanctions on Belarus.
Both Pratasevich and Sapega have remained in detention ever since. Pratasevich, who faces a potential 15 years in prison, has been shown on state television expressing regret for his activities. The opposition has said he spoke under duress.
Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya on Friday called moving Pratasevich and Sapega to house arrest "good news," but stressed it is not the end. "House arrest is not freedom, they're still facing charges, their every step is still being watched. It means they're still hostages," Tsikhanouskaya, who left Belarus for Lithuania last year under pressure from the authorities, said.
Tsikhanouskaya added that her team are in touch with Pratasevich's parents, who "aren't given any information about their son, aren't allowed to talk to him" and are "convinced that the regime is playing a game, using Raman and Sofia's lives."
Sapega's lawyer, Anton Gashinsky, confirmed to The Associated Press that she has been transferred under house arrest recently, without specifying when exactly it happened. She resides in a rented apartment in Minsk, and her parents met her on Thursday at a restaurant.
Gashinsky said she wasn't alone at the restaurant, but wouldn't clarify whether she was with Pratasevich.
Pratasevich's lawyer, Inessa Olenskaya, refused to comment on her client's whereabouts and status, citing a non-disclosure agreement.
Belarus has been rocked by months of mass protests fueled by Lukashenko's re-election to a sixth term in an August 2020 election that was widely seen as rigged. The authorities responded to the demonstrations with a massive crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.
Most opposition leaders have been jailed or forced to leave the country.
The United States, the EU, Britain and Canada joined forces on Monday to impose sanctions on several top Belarusian officials. The EU also imposed a series of bruising economic sanctions that target key Belarus exports, including potash -- a common fertilizer ingredient -- and petroleum products.
Belarus' Foreign Ministry has said the sanctions would hurt ordinary people and "border on the declaration of an economic war."