Jailed journalist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who were arrested after Belarus diverted to Minsk a passenger plane they were on, have been moved from the prisons where they were being held to house arrest amid calls by the opposition and rights activists for their immediate release.
On May 23, Belarusian authorities scrambled a military jet to escort a Ryanair passenger flight over its airspace to land in Minsk in what many countries regard as a "state hijacking." After the plane landed, law enforcement immediately arrested Pratasevich and Sapega.
Pratasevich's father, Dzmitry, who lives in Poland, told the BBC on June 25 that he was not sure why the move was made, adding that "maybe he is involved in some kind of political game."
"The lawyer does not say anything, the authorities do not say anything," he added.
"If the measure of restraint has been changed, this is an improvement in their living conditions. Otherwise, what will happen next is unknown."
Sapega's lawyer, Anton Gashinsky, told Current Time that he had been informed that his client's parents met with their daughter on June 24.
"Yesterday, Sofia's parents met with her. The meeting took place in a restaurant, under guard, because house arrest implies the presence of an escort," Gashinsky said.
Gashinsky said he believes that Sapega's transfer to house arrest was connected primarily with last month's meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and and Belarus's authoritarian ruler, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, in Sochi. Sapega is a Russian citizen.
Earlier Sapega's stepfather told the BBC that his daughter had been moved to house arrest and was living alone in a small apartment in Minsk.
"We are in shock," the BBC quoted Sergei Dudich as saying.
The Belarusian Investigative Committee, the law enforcement body charged with prosecuting major crimes, said in a statement on June 25 that both Pratasevich and Sapega continue their confessions and have pledged cooperation with investigators in exchange for house arrest, which was later granted.
Opposition politician Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya's office said moving the two to house arrest, while good news, is not enough and they are still being held without cause.
"The fact that Raman and Sofia were moved to house arrest and are not in cells any more is good news," Tsikhanouskaya, who is based in Lithuania, said in a statement.
"But house arrest does not mean freedom.... They remain hostages," she added.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election.
Pratasevich faces charges of being behind civil disturbances that followed a disputed presidential election in August 2020, an offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
He was a key administrator of the Telegram channel Nexta-Live, which has been covering mass protests denouncing the official results of the election, which handed Lukashenka a sixth presidential term.
Amnesty International said that justice will not be served until the two are released.
“While under house arrest, Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega remain wrongfully detained by Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s government. They have been unlawfully arrested and arbitrarily prosecuted for nonexistent crimes, and justice will not be served until they are unconditionally released," said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Director, in a statement on June 25.
“We call on the Belarusian authorities to release Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega immediately and unconditionally. They must allow them to leave Belarus if they choose to do so, and if they remain in the country, the authorities must guarantee there will be no further reprisals against them.”
“This looks like a cynical ploy by the Belarusian authorities to secure the lifting of international sanctions which were imposed after Raman and Sofia’s arrests. Over the past year, the world has watched in horror as Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s government crushes peaceful dissent with unspeakable cruelty -- these transfers to house arrest change nothing. We reiterate our call on the international community to do their utmost to end the human rights crisis in Belarus," Struthers said.
The Kremlin said on June 25 that Russian diplomats would continue to "guard" the interests in Sapega, who is said to also be facing criminal charges. The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not say whether or when Sapega may return to Russia.
On June 24, the European Union imposed sanctions on key sectors of the Belarusian economy and major revenue sources for Lukashenka's regime, including potash fertilizer exports, the tobacco industry, petroleum, and petrochemical products, in response to the incident.
In a statement on June 25, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry described the sanctions as being part of an effort to "disintegrate and undermine a sovereign and independent state," and said Minsk would take unspecified retaliatory measures in the coming weeks.
Lukashenka's regime has been under international pressure since it launched a brutal crackdown on the political opposition and independent media in the wake of a disputed election in August 2020.
The protesters have said the election was rigged, while the EU, the United States, and other countries have refused to recognize the official results of the vote and do not consider Lukashenka to be the country's legitimate leader.