Lukashenko 'pardons' Belarus activist taken off flight

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Roman Protasevich photographed in June 2021 at a briefing for journalists and diplomats organized by the foreign ministry in Minsk
Roman Protasevich photographed in June 2021 at a briefing for journalists and diplomats organized by the foreign ministry in Minsk

A Belarusian former dissident journalist, arrested when his Ryanair flight was spectacularly intercepted and convicted this month to eight years in prison, has been pardoned, state media reported Monday.

Roman Protasevich, formerly an editor of the opposition media group Nexta, was arrested two years ago and accused of helping to coordinate mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko's re-election in 2020.

He was detained in May 2021 after his flight from Greece to Lithuania was intercepted by a Belarusian fighter jet and forced to land in Minsk.

Earlier this month, a court in the Moscow-allied country sentenced the 28-year-old to eight years in a penal colony. He was kept under house arrest after the trial.

But on Monday, Belarusian state news agency Belta reported that Protasevich had been pardoned.

"I have just signed appropriate documents confirming that I have been pardoned," Belta quoted Protasevich as saying.

"I am incredibly grateful to the country and of course, to the president personally for such a decision," he said in a video released by Belta.

"This is, of course, just great news."

After his arrest, which caused international shock, Protasevich is believed to have been coerced by authorities into issuing apologetic statements on state television.

- Political prisoners -

As his trial opened in February, he said he was "fully guilty," in a video published by Belta.

Little is known about how Protasevich was treated by security services.

Some in the exiled Belarusian opposition have accused him of collaborating with authorities.

Two other key figures behind the Nexta Telegram channel, Stepan Putilo and Yan Rudnik, were sentenced in absentia to 20 years and 19 years in prison respectively.

The charges included making public calls to insurrection, organising of terrorist attacks, offending the president and spreading false information about Belarus.

Belarus, ruled by Lukashenko since 1994, has cracked down on anyone linked to the protests, which were the biggest in Belarusian history.

Nexta, a popular channel on YouTube and Telegram, played an active role in the 2020 protests, which erupted after Lukashenko was accused of rigging an election.

The platform was banned and declared a "terrorist organisation".

According to Belarus's independent Viasna rights group, there are now 1,500 political prisoners in the country.

The Minsk regime, reclusive for years, has become even more isolated after brutally suppressing the protests and allowing Russia to use Belarusian territory to launch its Ukraine offensive.