Sofia Sapega: Russian woman captured by Belarus on Ryanair flight pleads for freedom

‘Today I understand that I have been unfair,’ Sofia Sapega said in a letter

<p>Sapega was sentenced to six years in prison</p>

Sapega was sentenced to six years in prison

A student captured by Belarus when it forced down a civilian airliner last year in what western countries called an act of state piracy has released a letter from jail confessing to illegal actions and pleading for clemency.

Sofia Sapega, 24, a Russian citizen living in Lithuania, was arrested along with her then-boyfriend, exiled Belarus dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, when their Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in Minsk in May last year.

After his dramatic arrest in 2021, Roman Protasevich faced charges that include organising mass unrest and for which he could have been sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. He ran a messaging channel that was widely used in 2020’s massive protests against hardline Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko.

The incident drew condemnation from countries around the globe, apart from Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko's main ally, Russia. Following the extraordinary incident, European countries banned passenger air travel over Belarus.

Belarus later convicted Ms Sapega of “inciting social hatred” and sentenced her to six years in prison.

Sofia Sapega and Roman Protasevich were pulled from a Ryanair flight

Mr Protasevich, former editor of a prominent opposition news outlet, renounced his political activism and was released from jail into house arrest. The opposition in Belarus believes his recantation was coerced. It was recently reported that he had married another woman.

In her letter, which was published by the Russian news site RBC and which her lawyer confirmed was genuine, Ms Sapega said that she understood the “illegality” of her actions, and requested that Mr Lukashenko commute her sentence.

“Today I understand that I have been unfair, and that I looked at things from only one side,” Ms Sapega wrote. “I want to note that in Lithuania, before my arrest, I wanted to stop my illegal actions because I already did not agree with them.”

Last year, Ms Sapega’s father, Andrei, appealed to President Lukashenko as “a father to a father”.

Russia’s PrimaMedia news agency said he had recorded the appeal at its offices in Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East. “Alexander Grigorievich, I ask you for mercy. Enough of the cruelty, the world has been overflowing with it lately. Any sensible person understands that Sofia was in the wrong place and with the wrong person,” he said.

Ms Sapega’s father appealed to president Lukashenko

“Maybe I will be able to persuade [Mr Lukashenko] to pardon my daughter. Don’t ruin her life, she’s just a little girl who is only starting to live,” he said.

Mr Lukashenko has been ostracised by the West since an election in 2020 which the opposition said was stolen. With Russian financial and security support, he violently put down protests, and all major opposition figures are now jailed or in exile.

In recent months he has allowed Belarus to be used as a staging ground for Russia's invasion of neighbouring Ukraine and launch site for Russian missile strikes, although Belarusian troops have not openly taken part in the war.

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