Sofia Sapega, the Russian girlfriend of Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, appeared in a video overnight after the pair were detained, allegedly “confessing” to working for a social media channel that publishes personal data of government employees.
The video comes a day after a similar one featuring Protasevich, 26, in detention “confessing” to organizing mass riots in the Belarusian capital. Both videos show signs that the pair were likely speaking under duress.
The videos follow Belarusian authorities taking the extraordinary measure of diverting to Minsk a Ryanair flight carrying the couple on Sunday. The plane had taken off from Greece and was bound for Lithuania.
Sapega, a 23-year-old law student, identified herself in the video, saying that she lived in the Lithuanian city of Vilnius.
“On 23.05.2021, I took the same flight as Roman Protasevich. I am also the editor of the Telegram channel ‘The Black Book of Belarus,’ which publishes personal data of employees of the [Ministry of] Internal Affairs,” she said in the video, which was posted to pro-government social media channels.
Belarusian authorities have presented no evidence that Sapega has links with the Telegram channel.
In the video featuring Protasevich on Monday, the activist said interior ministry employees were treating him in a “correct” manner and “in compliance with the law.”
“I continue to cooperate with the investigation and have confessed to organizing mass riots in the city of Minsk,” he also said. His supporters said they believed the video was made under duress.
Sapega’s mother, Anna Dudich, told Russian state-run TV channel RT that her daughter was studying a masters in international and European law at the European Humanities University in Vilnius and wasn’t interested in politics. She said her daughter had told her about Protasevich, but never explain how they met.
“She was detained only because she is a companion of Roman Protasevich. They met about six months ago. She always spoke only positively about him,” Dudich said, adding that her daughter described Protasevich as “very calm, very smooth-tempered.”
“Sophia is a literate person, very well-read. A very decent person. She can draw really well, her drawings were unique. She was fond of philosophy. He speaks English almost perfectly. Probably, the meeting between them took place like that, on an intellectual level,” Dudich told RT.
“They were just dating, they had a joint vacation in Greece. We had a phone call with her the day before. She said everything went well, that she liked the vacation. And in the morning, I received a text message from her with the word ‘mama,’ when she was already at the Minsk airport,” Dudich said.
Dudich said she and Sapega’s father, Andrei Sapega, were shocked to see the video of their daughter detained.
“We no longer know where to go. I would very much like our law enforcement agencies, in particular the Republic of Belarus, to be able to figure it out. And I hope that our girl will be free,” she said.
Andrei Sapega described his daughter as “apolitical.”
“She never took part in protest actions, showed no interest in politics at all,” he told RT.
Lukashenko stands by bomb threat story
World leaders have condemned authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko for what many have described as a “hijacking,” while the European Union imposed sanctions and US President Joe Biden described it as an “outrageous incident” and a “direct affront to international norms.” He said the US would look at options to hold those responsible to account.
The EU and Canada have banned their aircraft from using Belarusian airspace.
A Belarusian official earlier claimed that Minsk airport received an email from the Palestinian militant group Hamas saying that a bomb had been planted aboard the Ryanair flight, a claim that Hamas dismissed as “fake news.”
Speaking in parliament on Wednesday, Lukashenko stuck by claims that the flight was diverted because of a bomb threat, saying the threat had originated in Switzerland.
The Swiss Department for Foreign Affairs tweeted: “The Swiss authorities had and have no knowledge of a bomb threat on the Ryanair flight Athens-Vilnius. Also, there was no notification from #Switzerland to the Belarusian authorities.”
Lukashenko also asserted that the aircraft was at the time near a Belarus nuclear power plant and asked what might have happened if the plant’s security systems had been placed on full alert. However, the aircraft’s path to Vilnius — which was closer than Minsk at the time of the diversion — shows it would not have flown close to the plant.
“Our actions might seem excessive to those who are trying to justify their crimes. But this strategy is vitally important for the country,” said Lukashenko, who sought to characterize the whole affair as a threat to Belarus’ sovereignty.
He said the goal of the country’s enemies was to “dissolve the Belarusian people and start strangling their sworn enemy — the Russian people.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made comments to reporters on Wednesday suggesting the Russian government believed Belarusian officials’ reasoning for landing the plane in Minsk. When asked whether the Kremlin has received an appeal from Sapega’s mother for help, Peskov said he was unaware of one.
“I only know that it was announced in the media. Of course, all consular protection, legal protection will be provided for a Russian citizen. Our foreign ministry said this,” he said.
“The Belarusian side said that charges were brought against her in connection with, the participation in, illegal actions and so on. In addition, we saw her confessions. But in any case, she has the right to a defense, and of course, all the necessary assistance will be provided to ensure her legal protection.”
Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovksya said Wednesday that Lukashenko was turning Belarus into the North Korea of Europe and predicted more protests against his long rule this summer. She also criticized the EU position on Belarus.
“Let’s be frank, the previous EU strategy of wait and see towards the Belarusian regime doesn’t work. The EU approach of gradually elevated pressure on Lukashenko’s regime hasn’t managed to change his behavior and only led to a growing sense of impunity and massive repressions. Now, I call on the European Parliament to make sure that the reaction of the international community is not limited to the Ryanair flight incident.”
Lukashenko has led Belarus since 1994 and took his sixth consecutive term last year after an election period marred by a brutal crackdown on mass protests against the leader. Belarusian authorities detained political opposition figures, protesters and activists.
CNN investigations have found cases where Belarusian authorities have used torture against detained protesters.