Journalist on Ryanair flight forced to land in Belarus is jailed for 8 years

Opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich’s flight was ordered to land in Minsk (Reuters)

A journalist arrested after Belarus forcibly diverted his Ryanair flight was sentenced to eight years in jail on Wednesday after what opposition leaders called a “fake trial”.

Roman Protasevich, 27, was flying from Greece to Lithuania almost two years ago when Belarussian air traffic controllers ordered the pilots to land in Minsk on the false pretext of a bomb threat.

Ryanair flight FR9478, between two EU nations, was escorted to the ground by Belarus fighter jets in an unprecedented hostile act. No explosives were found on board but Mr Protasevich, a Belarusian citizen who lived in exile, was detained in an apparently pre-planned move.

He was found guilty of a range of offences including conspiring against the state, inciting acts of terrorism and slandering the country’s strongman president Alexander Lukashenko.

His sentencing came on World Press Freedom Day.

Ryanair flight FR4978 was forcibly diverted to Belarus by fighter jets on 23 May 2021 (Flightradar24)

Mr Protasevich ran Nexta, a Telegram messaging app channel widely used by participants in mass protests against the disputed 2020 election that gave Mr Lukashenko a sixth term in office. Together with its sister channel, Nexta Live, it has 1.4 million followers.

Founder of the channel, Stsiapan Putsila, and another editor of the channel, Yan Rudzik, were sentenced in absentia to 20 and 19 years in prison respectively. Both remain in exile.

Sofia Sapega and Roman Protasevich at an earlier hearing (Telegram Channel Zheltye Slivy/AFP/Getty)

The circumstances of Mr Protasevich’s arrest in May 2021 prompted international outrage and triggered European Union sanctions against Mr Lukashenko.

Several Western countries have since barred planes from flying over Belarus.

Belarus is a strong military ally of Russia and Vladimir Putin (Sputnik)

His Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, was also arrested before the flight was allowed to continue. She was convicted last year and sentenced to six years in prison but Belarus has agreed she can serve her sentence in Russia.

Belarus’ opposition leader in exile, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, called the sentences a “disregard for justice” on the part of the regime, which had conducted “a fake trial”.

Mr Pratasevich has “been the regime’s hostage since the Ryanair [plane] hijacking,” she tweeted.

After his arrest, Mr Protasevich was shown on state television tearfully confessing to involvement in anti-government protests and plotting to topple Mr Lukashenko. The exiled Belarus opposition said the admissions were false and had been coerced.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report