The parents of the young opposition activist and blogger detained in Minsk after the passenger jet he was on board was forced to land in the Belarusian capital earlier this week are pleading for the international community to help free their son.
“I’m asking, I’m begging, I’m calling on the whole international community to save him,” Raman Pratasevich’s mother, Natalia, told AFP. Speaking from her home in Poland, she added, “Please save him. They’re going to kill him there.”
“They sent a fighter jet to get this young man! It's an act of terrorism — I don't think you can call it anything else. He's been taken hostage. This is an act of pure revenge!” she said.
Her husband, Dmitry Pratasevich, a former soldier, said: “His lawyer tried to see him today but she was turned down. She could not see him. We still don’t know if he is in there, what his condition is, how he is feeling.”
Their anguish was matched by the mother of Sofia Sapega, another opposition activist, who was also removed from the Ryanair flight in Minsk. A video of Sapega, a Russian national and friend of Pratasevich, was released Tuesday by Belarusian authorities as they announced she would be held for at least two months.
In the video, Sapega, according to her mother, appears to be confessing to editing an opposition Telegram channel that publishes personal information of Belarusian policemen. Her mother said it appeared she was speaking under duress for the video, in which she provides her personal details and says she edited a platform “which publishes the personal information of officials from internal affairs bodies.”
Sofia’s mother, Anna Dudich, told Russian television she was “shocked” by the video. “Either I’m confused, or it’s a dream, or it’s a setup,” Dudich said. She told Western media outlets that her daughter was talking in an unusual manner. “She sways, eyes in the sky — as if afraid of forgetting something.” Dudich added: “We are now packing warm clothes. We will go to Minsk. I want to try to give her a parcel. I saw she only had a thin jacket.”
Sapega and Pratasevich were detained Sunday when the Ryanair plane they were flying on from Athens to Vilnius was diverted by Belarus authorities to land in Minsk. Western countries, including the United States, have accused Belarus of committing air piracy and hijacking the Ryanair plane after it was rerouted over a false bomb threat.
Sapega’s lawyer, Alexander Filanovich, told RBC, a Russian news outlet, that Sapega was interrogated Tuesday and charged with criminal offenses. Russian foreign ministry officials say she’s being charged with “committing crimes under several articles of the Criminal Code of Belarus during the period from August to September 2020.” That was during the height of nationwide protests against the fifth re-election of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
The Belarusian opposition and Western nations have condemned the election as rigged.
Sapega’s mother said her daughter was in Lithuania at the time and wasn’t involved in the demonstrations in Belarus. Sapega, who is also a student at the European Humanities University, EHU, in Lithuania, and Pratasevich, 26, face stiff penalties if convicted. Pratasevich, whom Belarusian authorities have placed on a terrorism list on the ground that he incited mass protests, could be handed a death sentence, opposition groups fear. Some analysts say a 15-year prison term is more likely.
Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya told a news conference Tuesday that a video of Pratasevich released by Belarusian authorities suggested he had been tortured. “He said that he was treated lawfully, but he's clearly beaten and under pressure. There is no doubt that he was tortured. He was taken hostage,” she told reporters in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital.
Both activists are being held in the Okrestina pre-trial detention center in Minsk, where thousands of anti-Lukashenko protesters and activists have been detained the past few months. Belarusian and international rights groups, including Amnesty International, say many detainees arrested for protesting are beaten and tortured in the center, which is overseen by the Investigative Committee of the Republic of Belarus, part of the country’s interior ministry.
Rights groups have documented three rapes. And in October 2020, opposition groups released a video purportedly showing fresh detainees being beaten in so-called “welcome parades.”
At a meeting in Brussels on Monday, leaders of the 27 European Union member states called for all EU-based airlines to cease all flights over Belarus, and they promised further economic sanctions.
Separately, Belarusian neighbor Ukraine has suspended all air travel with Belarus, and the country’s prime minister, Denys Shmygal, has ordered all Ukrainian airlines to avoid flying in Belarusian airspace, which will add, according to Ukrainian Airlines, 40 minutes to flights from Kyiv heading to the Baltic states and Finland.
"Belarusian authorities stop at nothing in persecuting dissenters. Even its airspace is unsafe now,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted. “Ukraine has always been interested in a democratic Belarus where human rights are respected.”
The EU and Ukraine air bans will result in a loss to Belarus of about $70 million in overflight fees, civil aviation associations reckon.