A Russian activist has been jailed for six years after her Ryanair flight was forced to land in the Belarusian capital of Minsk in May 2021.
Sofia Sapega and her dissident boyfriend Roman Protasevich were on board a plane from Athens to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius when it was forced to change course to head for Minsk after a supposed bomb scare.
The airline said Belarusian flight controllers told the crew there was a bomb threat as it was crossing through the country’s airspace and ordered it to land in Minsk. The couple were then pulled off the flight and detained in a move which called international outrage.
The incident was described at the time by Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney an act of as “piracy”, while EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary called the move a “hijacking.”
On Friday, Ms Sapega was found guilty of charges that included inciting social hatred. Since she is a Russian citizen, her lawyer said they would ask president Vladimir Putin to intervene.
She was convicted of inciting social enmity and discord, and illegally collecting and disseminating information about the private life of an unnamed person without his consent.
“The court finds Sapega guilty on charges of ‘deliberate acts aimed at inciting social enmity and discord on the basis of social affiliation committed by a group of persons, which had serious consequences,’” said the verdict issued on Friday at Grodnensky District Court in Belarus.
Ms Sapega ran a channel on Telegram that published data on government and military staff involved in the implementation of widescale arrests during the massive protest gatherings of 2020.
It came after autocrat Alexander Lukashenko, who has governed the country for 26 years, was handed a sixth-term after his most recent victory with 80 per cent of the vote.
His declaration of victory on 9 August 2020 sparked mass protests after concerns the vote was fraudulent, during which election forces were accused by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) of using “excessive violence” against activists.
Mr Protasevich was editor of another Telegram channel, dubbed Nexta, which helped organize the protests in the capital Minsk.
The couple used their respective platforms to call for free and fair elections in a bid to topple Lukashenko, Belarus’s first and only president.
Following the dramatic Ryanair diversion, EU leaders opened a two-day summit.
Ms Von der Leyen said: “The outrageous and illegal behavior of the regime in Belarus will have consequences. Those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned.”
The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called it the diversion of the flight an “inadmissible step,” while Swedish foreign minister Ann Linde said: “It is dangerous, reckless and naturally the EU is going to act.”
In a joint statement, the chairs of parliamentary foreign affairs committees in the UK, US, Ireland, Lithuania, Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, Estonia and Latvia condemned what they called an “act of state terror”.
The Belarusian foreign ministry claimed the country’s authorities acted “in full conformity with international rules”.