Raman Pratasevich

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On May 23, 2021, Belarusian authorities arrested journalist Raman 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, 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 faces anti-state charges that date seven months prior to his arrest. 

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, two Telegram channels that have 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” and “incitement of racial, national, religious or other social unrest.”

A conviction for organizing unrest is punishable by up to 15 years in prison; a conviction for incitement can carry up to 12 years, according to the Belarusian criminal code.

On the day Pratasevich’s plane was diverted, the Investigative Committee said in a post on Telegram that it had forced the flight to land because it had received information that there was a bomb aboard the plane. Belarusian authorities did not produce evidence of a bomb, reports said.

The next day, May 24, a 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 divergence 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. 

Pratasevich’s mother, Nataliya Pratasevich, told CPJ in a phone interview that she was concerned about the psychological state of the journalist whom she said 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 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.  

Dmitry Pratasevich, the journalist’s father, who is based in Poland, told CPJ via phone 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. 

CPJ called Pratasevich’s defense attorney Inesa Alenskaya several times in early November but she did not answer her phone. According to Dmitry Pratasevich, the lawyer signed a nondisclosure agreement with the authorities.

Dmitry Pratasevich said that he believes his son’s health is stable in house arrest.

In November 2021, CPJ called the Ministry of Interior’s press service but the phone was not answered. CPJ also emailed a request for comment to the Belarusian National Press Center, which covers the activities of the president, the national assembly, the council of ministers, the Belarus president’s administration, and other government bodies, but did not receive any response.