Belarusian authorities arrested journalist Raman Pratasevich in May 2021, and he faces anti-state charges that date seven months prior to his arrest.
On May 23, 2021, authorities arrested Pratasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega after diverting a commercial Ryanair flight they were on from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, and forcing it to land in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. The diversion of the flight caused an international outcry and prompted the European Union to tighten sanctions against Belarus. After a month in detention, BBC Russian reported that Pratasevich and Sapega had been transferred to house arrest in separate apartments in Minsk.
Pratasevich, who was living in Poland and Lithuania before his forced return to Belarus, is the chief editor of Belarus Golovnogo Mozga (Belarus of the Brain) and a co-founder and former chief editor of NEXTA. The two Telegram channels covered protests against the contested August 2020 reelection of Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, according to news reports.
Pratasevich began in journalism at the now-banned independent Belarusian news site Tut.by. He also worked with the Belarusian service of the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty before he moved to Poland in self-imposed exile.
In November 2020, the Belarusian Investigative Committee, the country’s intelligence agency, announced that Pratasevich and NEXTA co-founder Stsiapan Putsila, who lives in exile in Poland, were charged with “organizing mass unrest,” “organizing or participating in gross violations of public order,” and “incitement of racial, national, religious, or other social unrest.”
A conviction for organizing unrest is punishable by up to 15 years in prison under Article 293; a conviction for organizing or participating in gross violations of public order can carry up to four years in prison under Article 342; and a conviction for incitement can carry up to 12 years under Article 130, according to the Belarusian criminal code.
On the day Pratasevich’s plane was diverted, the Investigative Committee said in Telegram post that it forced the flight to land because it had received information that there was a bomb on board the plane. Belarusian authorities did not produce evidence of a bomb, news reports said.
The next day, on May 24, pro-government Telegram channel Zhyoltiye Slivy published a video in which Pratasevich appeared with his hands tightly clasped in front of him and with apparent bruises or scuff marks on his forehead. In the video, Pratasevich “confessed” to “organizing mass riots” in Minsk.
Later that day, the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs wrote on Telegram that Pratasevich was being held in the Minsk No. 1 Detention Center.
On June 3, Belarusian state TV aired what it described as an “interview” with Pratasevich, in which the journalist again “confessed” to planning protests against Lukashenko. In a June 14 press conference on the diversion of the plane, the journalist apologized for “damage” he had caused to the state and said he had not been beaten, according to reports.
Belarusian opposition leaders and human rights groups decried the appearances, which they contended were made under duress, according to news reports.
Pratasevich’s mother, Nataliya Pratasevich, told CPJ in a phone interview that she was concerned about her son’s psychological state, saying he was tortured into a confession. CPJ was unable to independently verify allegations of torture.
On June 25, the Investigative Committee said in a statement on its Telegram channel that Pratasevich had reached a plea deal with authorities and “pledged to assist in the preliminary investigation, expose accomplices, and do their best to redress the caused harm.” That day, authorities transferred Pratasevich and his girlfriend to house arrest in separate apartments, according to news reports. Franak Viačorka, a senior adviser to exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, tweeted that the couple were “still hostages” and that KGB agents were living in Pratasevich’s room with him.
The journalist’s father, Dmitry Pratasevich, who is based in Poland, told CPJ via phone in late 2021 that he was not aware of the details of the plea deal, which authorities have not publicized. “What matters is that my son is not free, and the criminal case wasn’t closed, he can still be prosecuted and jailed,” he said.
Dmitry Pratasevich told CPJ in late 2021 that he believed his son’s health was stable while he remained in house arrest. CPJ tried to contact Pratasevich’s father in October 2022 to ask an update about his son’s health status but did not receive any reply.
In October 2022, a representative from banned Belarusian human rights organization Viasna, which continues to operate in the country unofficially, told CPJ via messaging app on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal that Pratasevich was still under house arrest.
On July 19, 2022, the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency, issued a report on the forced landing of the Ryanair flight carrying Pratasevich and Sapega, concluding that Belarusian authorities had committed an act of unlawful interference.
In September 2022, CPJ called the Ministry of Interior’s press service, but nobody answered the phone. CPJ emailed the Belarusian Investigative Committee but did not receive any replies.